Robert Curthose returned from England with capital and reconciliation. No more squabbling with brother, Will. They were one in Christ. The Norman army to assemble at month’s end and depart. Too-poor Robert at last in cash; him to go and Red Will to stay as the duchy’s regent. Who bartered that? The politic of it all. How hard to get things going. O’ for the clean, crisp arc.
The plot! The plot! Where’s the plot! Keep the action going! The bloody war will be damn well done . . .
But hold. There are greater theatres then those of battle. O’ yes, the blood will run, dark and thick, gagging throat and tongue with its noxious iron ‘til a sunny day is leprous. Hold, that glorious day will come . . .
Tìbald ordered a celebration. Sainte Cecilia festooned. The villeins, feathers in their caps, capered like fools. Gloriously drunk. And what’s to be drunk without fikking? Not that everyone did . . . All did . . . So much fikking – a sour, yeasty smell – in corners and alleys. None more than Tìbald’s men. A little rapine, but the girls gave in, if not so they could’ve knocked the men’s heads with a fist-sized stone. And if there be fat bellies by the harvest, then indeed, they’d enjoyed it. Sin today, for tomorrow they’re off. Penance.
In Castel des Bâtons, they too, drunk, Tìbald most of all with second thoughts – religion’s highs and lows – God silent again and Sainte Cecilia much too pleasant . . . Aile pleasant. And the Nothing . . . What Nothing? Where did it go? All forgiven in the months since Christmas. What need for penance? Indeed, a war of penance. No, he need not go. God’s silent is assent. What first appears as one thing, is really another. What at first is good, is not good, then good again. Such trickery – to be a character in one’s own play. A part you play yourself unaware. Though he knew what was coming, Tìbald the Norman, killer of men.
But Aile not so, and eager, her moods diminished. She’d worn the iron every day to prove to herself, to Tìbald, she could do what she said she could do. Its thickness and weight grounding, and she could not wait to go. Sainte Cecilia dead to her – the dreary tower, the shabby hall, the dirty streets of the village, its ghosts. She was tired of being cold. Castel des Bȃtons always cold. Its heat, like love, escaping through the chinks, though once and awhile comfy. Can escape be penance?
O’, on with it. Go! Go!
And take Tìbald with her – that they be new again. And by penance, the world also made new again . . .
She sat, surrounded by men, and entertained as was her place, the lady of the house in the fumy hall. She played a psaltery – a haunting tune, not her own, though shaped it with its notes and textures. An air without words. An impediment, words. They must reach. They gild and imprison.
Let us not speak. We lie when we speak . . . inevitably. God does not want our words. Be silent. Be still.
And her tune, rising and falling, so much to heart, the men felt it like strong drink. Tìbald, Rainald, Marin struck. Though each different. How it pierced and betrayed. No soul-fortress could bear its assault. No conceit of self could stay. They could weep. Was it memory? No wonder God and lovers come to us in music. Tìbald’s loins grew hot. When finished, she leaned back and kissed his cheek.
“I’m to bed. The drink . . . I can fall asleep here and now. Ysobel –” she called, holding out her hand for assistance. Ysobel attended her, herself drunk.
Tìbald watched them, his cheek warm.
“A fine sister,” Rainald slurred. “I’ll be pressed to manage so well.”
“And if I should stay?” Tìbald said.
“Then you’d be damned and it would flay your conscience.” Rainald downed his cup. “You must go. But I don’t care one way or the other. Do what you will. Just don’t drag us down with your misery.” He stood with a wobble. “You are our dóminus. We’re in your care and now suffer for your fears.” He took a step only to grab hold of the table. “I’m tired . . . of gospels and salvation. If yours is the struggle, then resign me to perdition. Let Christ come. This world needs to end.” He staggered out.
Tìbald turned to Ugo and Fulk passed out on the table. Behind them, in the corner, Père Marin all clear-eyed despite all he’d drunk.
“You heard that?” Tìbald said.
“You say nothing?”
“Why does He come only in disguise?”
“Ugh, dómini . . .”
Tìbald shook his head. “Put away the intellect. I ask as a child, from my heart. Why does He come only in disguise? To catch us? Always a trick. His love’s a trick and my soul – a prize. Am I some game to be hunted?”
“Just you, dómini? Not all of us? How special you must be . . .”
“I am ashamed to think such things, but I think them.” He looked toward the bedchamber. “She is my heresy. I was everything to her, once. That too a trick, a trick of the loins, but an exquisite one. Exquisite because it’s plain. The object is plain. You can feel it. You can touch it like I can touch my hand now.” His fingers entwined in each other. “Its mystery is that there is no mystery.” He raised his hand to the ceiling, to God: “Here, take it.” And his hand empty. “See – nothing. If I should call Satan---I’m here. ‘Oh, hail great Sat---’ I’m here . . .If there should even be the Devil . . . That woman in there.” He motioned again to the bedchamber. “That temporal flesh . . . No seeking. No discerning. No matter how angry, I can take her hand and there it is. No waiting upon an answer. I’m tired of homilies, the theologies – ‘Christ is this. Christ is that.’ I’m tired of belief. It bedevils me as Rainald says.”
“Then do not believe.”
“Stupid,” Tìbald spat. “You’re a drunkard, not a fool. Not to believe is belief itself. And you mock me. Must I curse God to move His hand? He reveals Himself only through suffering. Through fear.” The murdered pilgrim dancing in his head. And the wolves – the great gray male with its jaws snapping. And then the nothing – what one feels a stone on one’s chest, when the lungs fill with foul liquid---When you cross the line and see what all dread to see, what all must see – to drink the sight away . . . Or to murder and keep it close and be numb to the horror.
“To fear God is a good thing,” Marin said.
“What if I go and nothing’s changed?”
Marin did not answer.
“But his Holiness said it would be so. Christ said it would be so. Be it here or there, it is a beautiful thing to die for Jerusalem.”
“You made a pledge.” Marin with a hint of a slur.
“Yes---or Christ will abandon me. But He has already. I’ve not felt Him since la veille de Noël . . . You don’t help.”
Marin, his eyes suddenly liquid, waved his hand. “Ego te absolvo.”
Tìbald rose for bed. “To communion then.”
“Wake up, dómini!”
The bedchamber dark with Tìbald and Aile naked on the bed, Ugo’s eyes tracking between Aile’s mons and her flattened breast, the bulge of her belly striped with marks. He shook Tìbald’s arm.
“Dómini, awake! You must!”
A film of light through the narrow window alive with a leprous ether breathed in everyday and always working.
Tìbald, with a slit of an eye, raised his head. Aile stirred, her hair a tussle. Then a jump, realizing their naked. Aile scooted under the cover.
“Rainald is dead,” Ugo moaned.
Tìbald moved on him with a raised hand.
“He’s dead, dómini.”
A look of confusion and Tìbald raised his hand again.
“He’s gone, dómini.”
Ugo with tears – “Oh, dómini---”
Rainald lay fully dressed as he had passed out on his bed, a bed among many beds on the floor above the hall, a lie-down from being so drunk. Is it such a sin to be drunk? They’d all been drunk. He looked asleep as if his eyes might open. No violence. No struggle. Tìbald pinched his cheek – still warm. The lips stretched thin. A gesture of a smile? Terror? That he be afforded a little terror so to make a last prayer. But if it came in sleep and him unknowing.
Tìbald opened Rainald’s eyes. Black wells. They looked into his. He touched Rainald’s lips . . . Rarely had he touched his brother as brothers should in affection. He touched him now. Imparted the Kiss not thinking and stared. Just stared. God had stopped Rainald’s heart and took him unprepared. Because of me? How cruel – alone and unconfessed. Because of me? The drunken conversation and the tune that pierced so hard? To presume on Christ’s forbearance – how deadly. And Tìbald’s head, a backline chorus – the abbey prior from his youth, quoting – “‘But it is, I,’ the whore called to Augustine. ‘But it is not I,’ his wise reply.”
“I sent for the priest.” Aile’s voice over his shoulder, her face red. She forced herself to look – a normal thing, death, a daily thing, with logic mostly – grizzly death, accidental death, death with purpose, with trembling and dread. She rung chicken’s necks, split hares from jowls to tail – little girls killed by boars. But what logic this? Something danced in the room. A curse? Retribution?
Tìbald took Rainald’s hand but Aile tugged on his shoulder. “Away from here.” The linen smock broadcasted her form under its thin layer. Though covered, she was very much naked. Both of them as Tìbald had was wrapped only in a blanket. “We should pray,” she said.
We should pray . . . But his face twisted. Am I your murderer too?
“Ugo!” he cried.
Ugo dressed him – new gambeson and hauberk, sword and belt; his spurs rang on the stairs as his kite shield knocked against the steps. Fulk had saddled the umber devil which he hated. Tìbald mounted, the warhorse on the bit. Fulk let loose and off Tìbald galloped.
He held his lance ready like a javelin, riding at the forest, his knees hard to the warhorse’s ribs. There – the shield wall of trees and the faceless king within. It exhaled a mist. A murder of crows screeched in the canopy. The fool is coming!
He thrust the long spear and gouged a beech. It slapped him with a branch as he passed. Another thrust across the warhorse’s withers into a buckthorn. The forest floor spat at him off the hooves in a four-beat gallop. Tìbald raised the lance as if to hurl it but struck it on a stone. What sparks. Did la Forêt moan? Tìbald stabbed the very air. Then deeper he rode, he and the horse one, both enraged. About them, the new green sprouting. Ahead, the carcass of the palfrey, picked clean. Dead wolf’s remains not far beyond. The warhorse nickered.
“Where are you?” he shouted at the Enemy. Then he saw it rising out of the ground, as ugly a piece of nature to be possessed. A writhing, furious creature that must roam about the forest, though it stood before him perfectly still – a tree, a godlike tree.
He couched the lance and charged. He would pierce its heart or die in the trying.
A thwack and Tìbald knocked from the saddle. Such a fall. The wind kicked out of him. Above, in the tree, crows danced on the branches, for there, in the heart, lodged Tìbald’s spear. Did it bleed? A great limb touched the forest bed at Tìbald’s side as if it might move to press him into the soft earth. The ground held him fast. In his ears, a ringing. His breaths slowed and time stood still.
Breath. Breath. Breath.
Sound did not return, rather, born again.
On the First Day what was first made? Not Light. It was not Light. But Sound – God speaking.
But it was this world that spoke: the wind, the birds, squirrels bounding up branches – a fine and fair day, la Forêt in vernal green. And Tìbald’s lance stuck in the tree, its bark barely pierced.
He rose, coated with moss and sprigs – a man of the forest, the woodland had claimed him. That he could be that man and live naturally without a care or guilt . . . The natural man without punishment.
There is always punishment, even with the old gods. Life is not life without punishment.
He grabbed the lance, but the oak would not yield. He pulled like a toddler on his father’s closed hand. “I will go,” he moaned as he tugged and tugged. “For my brother’s soul, I will go. I will go. I will go. My penance.”
The lance dropped. The point burnished red.
The warhorse trotted back. Its ire dampened.
Tìbald mounted and looked back at the tree with its limbs outstretched. In the raised bark, a relief of a man. One crucified. Trick of the light? Of the mind? And there the lancehead burnished red, his hand tingling holding the shaft.
“I repent. I repent.”
Crows gathered overhead to view the spectacle.
“Jesu in disguise,” he shuddered. “I repent.”
Come to Jerusalem, he heard a whisper.
Lightening down his spine till his insides were afire.
Come to Jerusalem, the voice whispered again. Meet me there.
The crows cawed as to laugh.
Tìbald held the lance upright, his talisman, his enchanted goose.
The crows laughed and shat on his head and shoulders.