Sneak preview of 1212: The Year of the Journey
Chapter 11: The Hermit of San Pietro
As the ships passed Notre-Dame-de-Garde, the chapel of the sailors, hundreds of well-wishers lined the wharf, waving and cheering. Gradually the crowds of people shrunk to tiny specks, and Abel felt a fleeting sadness as he watched the land recede. Though some pilgrims kept singing hymns to try and bolster their spirits, many others gave in to tears. Abel thought this melancholy must be a sentiment familiar to sailors as they left port.
It didn’t take long for all their fears and superstitions about sea travel to come to the surface - things that they hadn’t dared to speak aloud until now.
"People say the seas around the coast of Africa are boiling hot."
"It’s because Mohammedans live there."
"Everything is reversed there - their north is our south."
"And their shadows fall on the opposite side to ours."
Abel knew these ideas weren’t based on real knowledge, but tales woven as a way of explaining the unknown. He tried to calm them down, fearing that too much of this kind of talk would spread panic, especially among the younger ones, who were the majority now, since many of the young men had left Marseille and gone home. It didn’t help matters that their vessel was terribly overcrowded. So many pilgrims had pushed their way on to the lead ship, because they wanted to be with Etienne.
Sensing the growing unease, Etienne called for more music.
"Not hymns," he said. "Carols. Let’s have some dancing."
A couple of boys struck up a tune on their pipe and tabor. Etienne got a couple of little ones to get up and start a ring dance, and soon others joined in. When the dance finished, Etienne motioned to the players to keep going and they struck up another tune. Abel saw a look of pain flicker across Etienne’s face. He realized it was one of the melodies Blanche had played that first night.
"I’ll bet one of the other ships is enjoying the music of the vielle right now," Etienne said wistfully.
Abel said nothing, but inwardly he winced. He’d told Etienne that Blanche, caught up in the crush of bodies on the wharf, had gotten on one of the other ships. He didn’t dare tell him the truth, Abel decided. Not yet. The thought that he’d never see Blanche again might crush Etienne’s spirit completely.
Abel pondered his own motives. Was he hiding the truth because he was afraid Etienne would blame him for Blanche’s decision? Because he hadn’t tried hard enough to convince her to get on the ship? Deep down, was he glad she’d stayed behind?
Now, as he watched the scene of revelry on the deck, Abel felt reassured that keeping the truth from Etienne was the right thing to do. Instead of trying to talk sense into the pilgrims, as Abel usually did, Etienne got them dancing and singing so that they forgot their fears, for the time being at least. Abel saw once again what a natural leader Etienne was. The pilgrims hung on his every word, and even the ones who were older than Etienne treated him as a benevolent, wise father.
The music continued long into the night, until most of the pilgrims dropped off to sleep in exhaustion. Abel lay awake for a time, thinking of his family. He knew they would worry when he did not come home for the feast of Purim, but he consoled himself with the thought that it would not be too long before he would return to Troyes and set their fears to rest.
The next morning brought a brilliant blue sky and favourable winds, which kept their spirits high. The other ships were all within sight, and occasionally one would veer close enough to exchange shouted greetings. After all the terrible hardships they’d endured, this time at sea became for many of them the happiest they’d ever known.
The one sour note was Will Porcus, who seemed preoccupied and much less jovial than he’d been back in Marseille. When Will approached him asking where the girl was - meaning Blanche - Abel replied that she wasn’t on the ship, that she’d stayed behind in Marseille.
"She stayed behind? Why?"
"I don’t know."
Abel looked around nervously, worried that
their conversation might get back to Etienne. Will said no more,
but glowered at him for a
moment before stomping
off angrily. Abel found the captain’s behaviour mystifying
and a bit disturbing. But perhaps, he speculated, Will was simply
preoccupied with all the responsiblities
of commanding the ship.
"Are we there?"
"Is that Jerusalem?"
The crew members smiled indulgently at their ignorance.
"No, Corsica," said one sailor, laughing.
The excitement of the voyage finally began to take hold, as they saw that they were on the final leg of their great journey and their trials and sufferings were behind them. Three times a day they were given their provisions, as Will had promised. They were surrounded by crisp sea air instead of scorching heat. They were being ferried over these long miles to the Holy Land, instead of having to trudge on their own feet. In fact, their biggest problem now was finding ways to pass the time on board the ship.
It was like the happy times of earliest childhood had been restored to them. All day long they played rambunctious games like Hoodsman’s Bluff or pretended to be chickens chased by a wolf in Que Loo Loo, until the crewmen would scold them for getting underfoot. Below deck there was music, dancing and fierce matches of Ringers and Fox and Geese.
When night fell they all gathered on deck. It was a clear night, with still waters and only the gentlest of winds to drive the sails. They looked up into the glorious night full of stars and gave praise to the wondrous ways of God.
"The stars are holes in the floor of heaven, made by God’s finger to let His light shine through," said one boy.
"No - the stars are the great spray of milk from Our Lady’s breast," another insisted.
"Neither of you’s right," an older youth broke in. "The stars are the tears of the angels, weeping for the folly and wickedness of mankind."
Listening to them, Abel smiled to himself. Of course, he knew from his reading of Ptolemy and other ancient thinkers that the stars were distant celestial bodies, not angels’ tears or drops of Mary’s milk. But who was he to dismiss their stories? Maybe they were as true, in their way, as the scientific ideas he’d studied at the university, all different ways of giving praise to the beauty of the starry sky and the glory of Him who created it.
As the night wore on, Abel found himself alone on deck, with only a few crewmen. As he looked up in the vast sky, a feeling of elation swept over him, a glimpse of the unity of all creation, the essential being-ness of all things of which Plato had written. In that moment he felt himself enveloped by a palpable sense of the presence of God, the One who had told Abraham long ago: "My name is Yahweh: I Am Who Am."
He realized, with great joy and enormous relief, that it was right for him to be here. For now he understood, beyond all doubt, that the God of the Jews, the God of the Christians, the God whom the Muslims called Allah - all were one and the same, a Divine Being vast beyond all measure or understanding. He also understood, with a new clarity, his father’s belief in the coming of Olam Ha-Ba, the time of peace and reconciliation of all people on earth. He vowed to himself that, no matter what more setbacks the journey might encounter, no matter what difficulties and devastations his life might bring, that he would never forget this moment under the glorious sky. He pledged to God, in whom all things are possible, that he would do everything in his power to bring about Olam Ha-Ba.
Copyright Kathleen McDonnell 2006
Last updated September 2006.