On the Way to Jerusalem
I have a memory of long ago that haunts me still. Sometimes the whiff of a strong odor on the wind will stir that half-formed thought. It might be the fresh-turned earth or the new-mown hay or the lilac-scented air. It might be the earthy musk of sweat or the pungent tang of piss or the darker hue of manure on a field.
I might be half-awake or half-asleep and it will come to me like a flash of light in deep darkness. Then it will flicker and die, and I will lie awake staring into the dark waiting for the light to shine again when or where or if it will.
It is a memory rooted in and of the earth, but sometimes the sky evokes it too. A glimpse of the deep blue or the wispy white or the clouds that look like a furrowed field might reawaken that distant memory. It is stronger still in the black night sky spattered with pin pricks of stars where a hazy whiteness spills across the darkness from one horizon to the other. It might be the sourness of spilled milk turning bad, and suddenly…
I was the daughter of a peasant farmer. We were up with the sun and worked until it set again. My mother had died giving birth to me, and so I had to help my older sisters prepare food every day. Sometimes my father made me pull weeds in the field and during harvest, we all helped with the hard chores of reaping, binding, threshing, and winnowing. At an early age I began to learn to make cloth, to scour the flax and comb the hemp.
I hated the work, and I would escape every chance I got. Each time I ran away, my father would bring me back and beat me. He called me ‘lazy’ and ‘worthless,’ and I suppose I was. But oh, I was a dreamer in a time and place where it wasn’t permitted to dream. The same Church that did not allow me to dream filled my mind with colours and pictures and space. The Church had its own special aroma too– rich, exotic incense that carried me even farther away.
As I grew older I learned how to avoid being whipped by my father and still spend time dreaming. On warm dry nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would leave the crowded hut we lived in and go out into the open. I would lie in a fallow field on my back and look up at the sky and dream. It was a wondrous miracle of a sky with the stars spread out above me wider than my arms could reach, a soup of light for my imagination to sip on. I would look at it and it would carry me away into its stories, the same stories that have been told since the beginning of human life on this earth. My life seemed such a tiny earth-bound nothingness underneath those stars.
Almost every night I would get up and go out and lie under them to dream.
One day a story fell into my little nothing life as quickly as the falling stars that sometimes streaked across the sky. It happened when I was about fourteen or so. In those days it was not common to know the year of your birth, especially if you were a peasant. I really didn’t know how old I was because we stopped counting after ten. I had been saying eleven, which meant ‘more than ten,’ for a very long time, long enough to grow breasts and to bleed like a woman.
It was a late summer night because the fields were full of crops and there wasn’t a fallow one close to our hut, so I lay in the roadway. I must have fallen asleep because suddenly I was awakened by the sound of a horse’s hooves. In fact, I woke up just in time to see a horse almost on top of me. I remember the look of terror in its eyes at that moment and the sound of its scream when it noticed me. Without a second to spare before it trampled me, the great beast twisted its body in the air, and landed awkwardly beside me. Off-balance, it fell, pitching its rider forward, tumbling on the ground.
The horse quickly righted itself, and I got to my feet as well. The horse hobbled nervously towards its rider, and I looked down at him where he lay on the ground unconscious. His fair hair curled about his soft, hairless face like the angel’s hair on the church statues. Oh, he was a handsome young man. I knelt down beside him. As I did so, he opened his eyes. He spoke some words in a language I didn’t understand. When I didn’t answer him, he spoke in my language.
“Who are you?” he asked.
I answered, “Abigail.”
“My name is Stephane,” he told me.
By his soft, fine clothing, embroidered with red and white summer flowers, I could tell that he was well-born, probably a squire. I was shocked that he was speaking in such a familiar manner to someone like me. At the same time I felt a warmth inside of me as if the universe had suddenly recognized my worth, something I had not even known myself until that moment.
Then, the most amazing thing happened—he kissed me.
I knew that I was supposed to be insulted and immediately run away. I knew that if I didn’t, I would be acting like a common beast. The priest had told me this often enough. So, how will I explain myself?
When he kissed me, I felt a stirring within, as if the serpent of the garden of Eden had awakened in me. It consumed me with desire. Oh, how blissful it was to touch another human creature! To have him reach inside of me under my roughly made shirt and touch me, soft skin to soft skin. Such joy I had never known. So that when he broke through my physical defenses, the pain was a mute and distant feeling. When I looked in his eyes, I saw there the reflection of the stars and it was as if they were exploding too. This was the most exquisite ecstasy. I would have gladly gone to hell with this sin unconfessed on my soul.
When he was done, he looked at me. I searched his face, but there was still no sign of disdain for me in it. So I dared to ask him a question.
“Where are you going?” His appearance on a horse in the middle of the night was strange, as all the ways of the nobility were strange to me.
I had heard the name of this place spoken by the priest in the church, but I could not remember what it was. “What is Jerusalem?” I asked.
He looked surprised for a moment. “Why, it is the City of God!”
Now it was my turn to be amazed. I did not know that my village was on the way to the City of God. “Why should you want to go there?” I asked.
“Jerusalem has been invaded by infidels,” he explained. “My knight is one of the holy army that is going to rescue Jerusalem from the infidels.”
“But why did God allow the infidels into his Holy City?” It seemed to me that God should have had a gate to lock them out.
He looked at me for the first time in a manner appropriate for a squire before a peasant. “One could not expect an ignorant girl like you to know about such important matters.”
I wanted to say, ‘It’s not my fault. No one has ever taught me about Jerusalem.’ I looked down at the ground and avoided my lord’s eyes. “I am sorry for my ignorance, Sire.”
He seemed to approve of my reply. The proper order of the universe had been restored, and I sensed that the spell he had been under was now broken. He stood up and brushed the dust of the road from his breeches. He called gently to his horse, which came to him. Before he mounted it, he looked at me, his eyes filled with pity.
“I must continue my journey.”
I sensed the importance of his mission in his words. He must save the City of God from the infidels.
“God be with you,” I said.
“And also with you,” he replied. Then he mounted his horse and galloped away through the night without looking back.
The night was still filled with night sounds, but now it seemed like the silence of death. The sky was still filled with stars, but now they seemed as dull as a cloudy day. I turned back to my family hut and went inside. It felt to me like I had dreamed a strange and magnificent dream.
However, I knew that it was real a full change of the moon later. One day in the middle of a step, I felt suddenly different, as if I were possessed. I felt the presence of another being inside of me. It was not a spiritual feeling at all, but a truly physical sensation. Even young and naïve as I was, I knew that I was changed now, and that I must hide it for as long as I could. I went away from the others to be sick in the long grass. As the months passed, I tied my dress higher and higher and wore a loose smock over it, but I could not hide it forever.
My sister Margaret, now a mother herself, was the first to notice, and she told my father. He whipped me with the branch of a willow tree. The back of my legs stung fiercely and the child in me wriggled in terror. Then my father told the priest. This was what I had dreaded the most. My father’s whipping I accepted as my due punishment, but the priest’s whipping was calculated to sting my soul.
He whipped me till the skin came off my back in strips, and then when I confessed he poured vinegar on my open wounds. He would not believe that I had been with a Crusader. That is what he called the man I described to him. He said that it was a fanciful and ridiculous story. He wanted me to confess that I had known the Devil himself.
“What would Satan want with me?” I asked.
“He wants you to bring his spawn into the world.”
By that I took him to mean my baby. I was afraid, very afraid. I understood that he meant to harm my child. “No, it is not true,” I said. “I have not been with the devil.”
“Then name the father of your child,” he commanded.
“His name is Stephane.”
“There is no one in the village with that name.”
“But that is his name.”
And the priest whipped me again until I knew that even my child felt the pain. Finally, he grew weary of tormenting me and he put my shirt on my back. I wept when the blood soaked through the coarse white fabric. I had only just spun the cloth and sewed it to fit my new body. I had no others and I did not know if I could scrub it clean again.
Weeks later, when the pains came upon me, I was in the newly furrowed field sowing grain. I cried out and my father sent me back to the hut. He sent my brother to get my sister Margaret to be my midwife. I would almost have rather been alone for all the hard names she cast at my head during the long hours of labour.
Hours and hours of pushing and pain swept through me and still no child was born. Margaret told me this was God’s judgment on me and I believed it must be so. In the end, I knew that I had better give up the ghost rather than go on fighting to stay in this world which had been so unkind to me. I told my child through my own blood that he should stop fighting too. I told him this world would greet him as a bastard and he would be called the son of the devil, and what kind of life would that be? I told him it was too hard a place, especially with no mother to protect him. He had already suffered enough pain. Then I told him not to be afraid. He would find his true father in Jerusalem, the City of God. As for me, I did not want to go to God’s city. I was aiming my soul for the stars.
No one knows for sure what happens to us when we die. There are some religions, though the Christian church is not one of them, that believe we may have lived past lives. If this is true, I do not remember any others, except this one. This strong memory lives in my soul. When the wind shifts or a bird dies or a foul odor breaks through the barriers of our nearly smell-less modern world, this memory wafts through me, as brief and fleeting as any of the millions of forgotten lives throughout history. Then I feel a tug at my soul and Abigail calls to me across time and space– “Remember”– and I promise my self that I will never forget.