Compline, veille de Noël – Norte Dame de Rouen.
The cathedral packed, its nave in torch light. An other-world with its massive columns. Arches and vaults soar. Colorful walls glitter and glisten; the eyes of the saints looking down. They whisper in the sputtering flames as the pilgrim journeys from birth to grave to stand at the Judgement Seat. There – Christ in the brummy light, fierce. Chaff to the left. Grain to the right. Narrow the path. So many fall in fire. But the Cross. A chance at the Cross above the altar. As many chances as breaths. Millions upon millions---
The seigneurs came to Haute Courte to swear annual fealty to Robert Curthose, their liege lord . . .
Tìbald skulked in the back about the portico, accused – by the statues, the windows, the transept, the altar. Since that day, he’d roamed about Castel des Bâtons not talking, not eating. “Our seigneur’s gone mad,” the villeins cried. “He’s murdered Jesu in Disguise. What will become of us?”
Sainte Cecilia too went mad. Nightmares abounded. Dry wood would not burn. Goats would not give milk. Smoked hams rotted. Quarrels among the villeins. Tìbald had tipped the world on end. A peasant woman stared at the keep from the window of her kitchen. Tìbald looked down at her and she promptly grabbed her newborn to plunge it in a boiling pot while her arms and hands cooked. Three days later she died in madness. “Curse him!” the villeins spat. “What he’s wrought on us!” Rainald kept order, cutting out a serf’s tongue; he put out a man’s eyes for gazing at the keep too long. The villeins, in fact, were grateful – least someone in control as Tìbald walked in circles; he slept without blanket or pillow upon the chapel’s hard floor, his sole companion his sword, which he clutched by the blade, the pommel and guard before his face like a cross.
“Do something,” Aile harangued Père Marin.
“There is nothing to do,” his reply.
“Absolve him,” she demanded. “Take away the sin. Make him whole again.”
“Again? He will not speak. How can he confess?”
“Heal him,” Rainald insisted. “It’s an illness of the spirit. Apply your art.”
The priest shrugged and went back to the rectory to return with a blanket and several wineskins. “Do not disturb us,” he said before going in. “If it be for days, leave us.”
“We haven’t days,” Rainald said. “We must leave for Haute Court after Sunday.”
“Do you require anything, Père?” Aile asked.
“Yes – bread, cheese and bière.”
Père Marin entered, the chapel dark like a lion’s den with a brooding Tìbald in the corner. Marin, with a Sign of the Cross, laid out his blanket and picnic stores. He sat and drank the first wineskin, a continuous gulp. Bread and cheese next, washed down by musty ale. A belch and a fart. And Tìbald with his sword, gripping the blade, rivulets of blood down his thumb dried and brown. Père Marin leaned back, closed his eyes and snored – for the next six hours – a noxious, irregular snort – great puffs of breath after a nasal gog.
When he awoke, he found Tìbald gone and in the hall eating porridge. With wineskin in hand, he sat next to him, neither speaking like two old cats.
“He was a villein,” Tìbald finally said.
Père Marin took a drink.
“Worse – a peasant.”
“Give me time. Give me . . . distance.”
Marin with a nod.
“Père, what am I to do?”
“Go to Rouen as your duty.”
And there Tìbald in the cathedral, peeking over the heads to the far altar behind a screen, the celebrants in prayer, incense rising in the fumy light, the oil of polished wood, sprays of flowers about the sanctuary mount . . . He’d know it if blind – this House. That it not vomit him out, but no, the very place for sinners. And him such a sinner: he mounts and falls. Mounts and falls . . . Is it a fall? In the act – the quintessence of rising, a surge of life. To sin is to feel alive. One must feel alive. One must feel alive . . . Could he tolerate redemption? No tug. No Pull. Stasis . . . Death . . . Redemption is death? Till at the bottom of that dark, dark well, sated. Then withdrawal and all emptiness, till God’s wrath rushes in. That Jesu keep Him off, but Jesu kicks the dust from His sandals . . . What He should do . . .
The bishop and priests emerged from behind the screen with vessels of holy water. All bowed their heads. The clergy sprinkled them – flying drops in arcing bands. The seigneurs cross themselves. So too the men-at-arms. The artisans and townfolk. The women and children. Aile next to Tìbald as her duty. What have I chained myself to? Tìbald against a pillar. Look at him, the backward creature. Out of step. Still shaving the back of his head as the old Normans do . . . In his own world as if he only struggles---
“Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab iniquo et doloso erue me.” – Guillaume Bonne Âme, Rouen’s aging archbishop – “Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight against an unholy people, rescue me from the wicked and deceitful man.”
Tìbald and Aile with the rest of the congregation: “Quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea: quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus? – For Thou, O God, art my strength, why hast Thou forsaken me? And why do I go about in sadness, while the enemy harasses me?”
“Mea culpa, mea Culpa, mea maxima culpa.” A bare movement of Tìbald’s lips. The Mass lost to him – the Epistle, the Gradual and Tract, the Gospel reading, the Homily. He missed the Credo – all words. But he likes to look. He eats with his eyes. Stop looking at me, Aile would chide. The bells rang for the Elevation – Ocular Communion. All looked. Moments later, the priests came down with hosts and ciboria. The faithful rose and moved forward. So many. Never so many. Aile among them. Tìbald hid behind a pillar.
But Aile in line for the Body of Christ, compelled. Hard Aile compelled. A power drew her – the church, the colors, the scents and songs till a burst of feeling. “Protect his tortured heart,” she whispered to the Virgin. Then prayer for herself and the soul of Bayard – his bright little face. She received, the Host upon her tongue. She tingled. Might she faint? What magic – veille de Noël . . .
Anachronism . . . But do we not feel as we have always felt?
Returning in grace, she took Tìbald’s hand. That he just be and not ruin it.
Communion at an end, Guillaume once again ascended the pulpit. With him, Gerento, the Abbot of Sainte Benignie, the Pope’s special delegate to the Normandy duchy. In silence they held the crowd, bowed each to the other, Guillaume conferring the Sign of the Cross on Gerento who turned to speak: “As the angels called to the shepherds on the night of Our Lord’s birth to leave their flocks and come see the child that would transform the world, so you shall be called now.”
“Hear the words of the Holy Father, for to hear the Holy Father is to hear the words of Christ Himself.” Sainte Benignie crossed himself and the seigneurs in turn with the townfolk and bourgeoisie. Sainte Benignie leaned in. “In the Name of God, I convict you as murderers!”
Happy Christmas. The seigneurs froze.
“You are deformed! Crooked! Leprous in your souls!”
“How heavy will your judgment be. Robbers of monks! Slayers of clergy! You brutalize the weak. You punish not the guilty. And not content with others’ suffering, you make war on yourselves; son betrays father, brother murders brother – a race in love with slaughter! What need does a pilgrim have to journey far to face his death? It is readily here at the hands of Christian lords. In this age, a thousand years from Bethlehem and a breath from Christ’s return, you are the greatest danger! You meddle in the Church for your own gain. You contaminate the structure that would save you. You petition saints with your alms to grant you aid and then defile your prayer with your arrogance and cruelty. Christendom, by your hands, is a country of blood. You would kill and then escape to the wilderness from being killed, making your confession like Calvary’s Bad Thief. You and your shallow repentance – thin soil. What do you know of a contrite heart? What mercy can your selfish guilt buy you? You repent from conceit. You repent from fear, but never feel the pain your offense causes, never seeing how you’ve twisted the world. The earth will not bear you; it writhes. It tears at itself because of your crimes. You, who will face the greatest accounting
. . . You Franks, the new Israel, God’s chosen . . .”
They stood shocked, a mace to their naked head and Sainte Benignie with a pointing finger---
“Because of you, abandoning your call to be a holy people, the forces of Lucifer have risen in the East. Turks! . . . Arabs! As far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Arm of Sainte George! They have conquered Romania and overrun Christians in seven great battles, killing many. They have fouled the sanctuaries of God – with horses – with whores! They, themselves – animals! Christians are martyred for not renouncing Christ, though not tied and slaughtered with the mercy given to brute beasts but disemboweled – their navels punctured and their intestines pulled out and bound to a stake they are made to march around.”
Mouths agape. Many looked away.
“No, you must hear. You must know the horrors. They behead your fellow Christians, not with a swift stroke, but by sawing. They rape young girls then cut their breasts away to deprive their infants milk. They crucify little children. They circumcise your Christian brothers and pour the blood into baptismal fonts. They defile the altars with their filth and seed . . . That I should recount such evil in this holy place on the eve of our Lord’s birth . . . But it must be said. We cannot gather here safe and warm and ignore this abomination. We cannot say: ‘tis Christmastide – rejoice. The horror is far away – let the animals murder each other. We do not see it.’ But Christ sees it. The Blessed Virgin sees it. The angels see it. The holy martyrs see it---”
Some began to sob.
“We are in the End Times. The world is on its head. Holy Church split East from West – Constantinople denying the primacy of the Chair of Sainte Peter and cast out. The Holy Roman Emperor apostate – the true Pontiff in exile with his Anti-Pope in Rome. A demonic religion sweeps across Asia, bent on destruction. Jerusalem has fallen! . . . It is fallen . . . Because of you!”
How heavy his face.
Are we so lost, the authors of our suffering? Too late? Too late?
“Our Lord calls. He cries out to us – Jerusalem has fallen. And you war with each other. Let hatred depart from among you. Cease your wars. Cease your quarrels. Forgive one another.”
Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, standing in his place of honor, his buried face weeping.
So genuine when we weep. Innocent like babes. Even more – nasty killers.
“Instead of fighting each other, pledge your warlike art to God that He may use it to rescue our wayward brothers. Use your arms for His glory. Enter upon the Road and wrest the Sepulchre from the pagan. Subject it to yourselves. It is a paradise like no other, the land and honey for the chosen race. Be the new Israel that God has called you to be.”
A stillness heavy. All in their sin, same as Tìbald. Everyone a Tìbald.
Gerento raised his hand. “I proclaim to you now, in the name of Urban, the true and holy Pontiff, Vicar of Christ on earth: those who bear the Sign of the Cross will achieve salvation in our time!”
A gasp--- Why a gasp? Salvation – Who thinks it? Jews don’t think it. Islam the same. From what should we be saved? Christians forever wanting to be saved . . .
“To fight for Christ and win back the holy city is a remission of penance for your confessed sins---”
“---regardless what those sins may be.”
Our sins! Our sins! What are our sins? Only we, ourselves, know them, though they be plain as day. You dare not tell me – for your sin is not my sin – your sin is to point out my sin, which, in fact, is not sin at all. You are the sin, which, is why I sin. And since you make me, it’s no sin at all.
“We now hold out to you, war . . . of a martyr’s glory – to become heroes upon whom the Christian world rests. To die for Christ---”
“Deem it beautiful---”
Yes and yes.
“Die for Him in the city in which He died for you---”
“I proclaim, in the name of Urban, Vicar of Christ on earth – Holy War.”
Glory upon glory.
“And fear not if you should fall this side of Jerusalem, or along the way, all is equal if Christ find you in His army. His Holiness instructed me to tell you those who set out and lose their lives on land, or sea, or fighting the pagans, their sins are remitted. This, His Holiness grants to those who go, by the powers vested him by Almighty Gods.”
Death is not death.
“Do not let your ties to home and kin worry you, as soldiers of Christ you are sponsored by Holy Mother Church. You are not only under her ecclesiastical protection, but she shall protect your families and properties as well. Do not be torn between worry and zeal. Therefore, His Holiness does not command or advise the old or the feeble to go, or those unfit for bearing arms; they are more hindrance than aid. This army is not for the weak or ascetics with visions unauthenticated by the Holy See. His Holiness seeks men of hard business who wish for a chance to put their hearts right.”
To be made right.
“Those of you who take the vow, place the cross upon your right breast as you journey to the Holy Sepulchre, and place it upon your back when you return. Let no one enlist until he has made a solemn vow before the bishop and witness to pray at the Holy Sepulchre – only then may he take upon him the cross as a sign of this vow.
“And be warned: the sword of anathema will cut away all who become faint hearted and turn back. Anyone who shrinks from his good intent through change of heart, or want affection for those he loves, be they parents or wife, he shall be an outlaw forever, unless he repents and undertakes his pledge again.
“The Holy Father has constituted our most beloved brother, Adhemar, Bishop of Puy,
leader of this expedition in his stead, so that those who undertake this journey should obey
his commands as if they were the Holy Father’s, himself. If any of you who, God inspires to this vow, know that Adhemar will set out with the aid of God on the day of the Assumption, and that you and your hosts should seek him out along the way and attach to his company. . .
“Until now, your arms have been in vain, your knightly vows a sham as you slaughter each other. Come, be consecrated warriors and receive a heavenly reward. Unite the Church East and West! Free your brothers enslaved, save the Tomb of Christ! Make the vow! Be cleansed and start anew! Deus lo volt!”
“God wills it! God wills it!”
And flung their hands out to Jesu, there invisible, Himself. Robert Curthose fell to his knees, his cheeks tear stained. Gerento came down to stand over him, as fine a symbol as the Church could need. He let Robert weep till the duke said, “I, Robert, Duke of Normandy---”
“Louder,” Gerento’s firm word, though all could hear.
“I, Robert, Duke of Normandy, Count of Maine have sinned by warring against my brother, William, King of England. I repent and vow to use my sword to free my Christian brothers in the East, and to free Jerusalem. I solemnly vow to pray at the Holy Sepulchre – I take the Cross.”
Deafening silence. How pure. The cathedral glowed. It warmed. They saw it – Robert on his knees, and the lines formed – dead men, living dead men taking the Cross – broken men of power. They confessed, desperate to withhold nothing. Gerento, with magic hands, touched. “Ego te absolvo . . . Ego te absolvo . . . Ego te absolvo . . .”
Tìbald among them shaking. “I have murdered an innocent. A poor creature who did me no harm. I murdered him out of malice and fear from a false vision – from my emptiness and bad faith. God have mercy on me. I have no mercy on myself.”
“Christ is mercy.” Gerento’s fingers in blessing.
“It is Christ I killed.”
“We have all killed Him.”
“I repent. I repent and will do penance. I will pray at Our Lord’s Tomb. I take the Cross.”
“Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris---”
“---et Filii, et Spiritus Santi . . . Rise, miles Christi.”
A heat at the top of his head that washed through him – down his arms, through his chest, tingling his spine and fingers. Grace, he thought and closed his eyes. Now let me die.
But he did not. That would be a mercy. He must find Aile.
At the back of the nave, she leaned against a column, her cheeks awash with tears. How long it been since her countenance was tender. That Aile be so moved. And with each teardrop, a sweet murmuring of the background chorus – “Rise, miles Christi. Rise, miles Christi.” He fell in beside her and she took his hand. “Rise, miles Christi . . .”
When it was done, they dispersed, without fanfare or promise, each to their quarters so not to break the spell. A spell indeed: holy, delicious, and rare. To be savored. For certain, the world would come crashing in with its dirt and complications.
Tìbald and Aile lingered, the nave in shadows. Such quiet. They held hands still. Behind them, the Wall of Statues – saints great and small, once like them, now in stone. Winter crept in and the space grew cold. Rainald, with arms folded, waited by the great door.
“Come,” he called. “Joyeux Noël. I’m starving.”
“You go,” Tìbald said.
“But the feast at court . . . How will I explain you’re not coming?”
“The Holy Ghost. Curthose will understand.”
“Until he’s drunk. And he’ll get drunk and then all maudlin. He’ll weep till empty and then grow mad . . . And so much for the Holy Ghost.”
“Blame not the Holy Ghost.”
“What madness,” Rainald scoffed, staring at the empty church. “No, better some venial pleasure and then repentance between God and me in a nice, warm bed – Domine, fac mecum timori casto – sed nondum! Let God be there when I need Him.”
Alone, Tìbald and Aile climbed Sainte Romain, Notrè Dame de Rouen’s high wood tower. Aile in the lead pulling on Tìbald’s fingers, not caring it be out of bounds. Blame not the Holy Ghost. The open steps narrowed. They creaked. And in the dark, such a danger. Would God catch them if they fell? He caught them now, bound them in their touch.
At the top, they stepped out on the utmost terrace. Dizzying height in the biting cold with Rouen at their feet and the Seine beyond with its icy flow. On such a night in Days of Old, Sainte Romain subdued a dragon across the river and delivered it to this spot to be burned – a blessed place for conquering demons . . . Christ is born . . . Revelers in the streets below singing, dancing, drunk. Some naked in the moonlight crooning common Christmas songs. Others in fright masks roaming about for Jews to beat up. Tìbald and Aile leaned on each other.
“Something happened.” Tìbald uttered.
“Yes,” Aile said.
“It lifted me up,” Tìbald a wonder, “and drew me to the front---”
Melodies from pipe and tambor rose.
“---And I swear, when I confessed my sin and took the vow, it was as if Heaven opened above my head and water washed over me. My limbs tingled and my chest burned.”
“Do you feel it still?”
“Christ is born.” Such mystery: He is born, He is dead, He is risen. He comes again.
“Yes,” she said and pondered. “Yes,” she said again.
He kissed her head through the top of her veil and held her.
“I will stand in the cave of His birth,” she said. “I will wade into the Jordan and walk the streets of Jerusalem.”
“You will come with me?”
“I go with no one and go whether you go or not.”
There it is. O’, you must have it. Don’t you feel strong sipping your tea all cozy? . . .
“We may lose all we have.”
“What have we now?”
This too – privilege.
“We may not return.”
All this ‘we’, she thought.
“I will have to go to the usurers,” he said rather light-hearted. Him that obtuse? “Pledge all we have . . .” The Ghost fading out. The World creeping in. “But so will everyone, even the duke. Make the Jews richer. They’ll refuse no one and will be glad to see us go.”
“Let him stay and be the dominus he’s always wanted, but the men go with us.”
“I want to go in armor,” she said.
Yes, and fly, and shoot fire from her eyes.
“I don’t think you do. You’d be bruised from head to foot and your rump will be blistered from the saddle. Besides, it’s not done.”
“It’s done,” she said. “Sichilgaita of Taranto wore iron and fought like a man . . . When I was ten, I was stronger and faster than any---” She whirled from his arms to lift her gown to show the scar on her rump. “How often you’ve seen that scar . . .” He’d not seen it for months. “I was vaulting a stone wall chasing a boy I was pummeling . . . I can throw a javelin as well as Ugo and Fulk. You will finance hauberks and arms for our soldiers. I want one. And a shield. And a javelin . . . And a sword.”
“A sword? You don’t know how to use a sword.”
“You will teach me. You teach Ugo and Fulk. I can practice with them.”
“The journey alone may kill us. You don’t want to be marked as a combatant in enemy lands---”
“I don’t want to be marked as a woman in enemy lands. The pagans honor no one. Have they the Peace of God?”
“Maybe it’d be better I not take you.”
“You’re not taking me.”
Him with a manly pause.
“I will do this,” she said. “I’ve become hard. You, in part, have made me so. I did not invite my sorrows. God has allowed them, though I don’t know why. I strive to have faith and follow His ways. I would hope they have a purpose. This pilgrimage could be the reason why. Maybe God, at last, is preparing our fortune.”
He held her as Adam held Eve – a dupe between her and God.
“What?” she asked, sensing it.
“We must prepare as soon as we can,” he obfuscated.
She knew better.
Never speak the truth to her.
She must be right. Always right. Only with him.
And there they were – in the way of themselves . . . the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, the man and his wife hid . . .