Just after vesper prayers, our scouts return wearing grim and serious looks. One of them is wounded through the waist with our enemy’s arrow and must be supported by his brothers. Then the Bishop gathers us and we are told what we already know: that our enemy surrounds us like fish collecting around a sunken milestone.
It has been only three days since we took Antioch from the Turks, and already the whole of Arabia has come against us. From my assigned turret, I have watched gather an endless multitude consisting of Saracens, Azymites, Arabs, Kurds, Agulani, Persians, and many other peoples whom I cannot name. We are told that the Agulani wear iron armor upon their whole man, even on their horses, and fear neither sword, nor arrow, nor lance. We are told that the Saracens, upon discovering a priest leading the people at mass in Edessa, martyred him on the altar and drank of the blood. We are told that our enemy desires to lead us away in ropes and scatter the people of Christ among the pagans.
The Bishop concludes his speech by calling us to a fast lasting five days after which we will go and meet our enemy beyond the city gates.
My tent-mate, Raymond, has discovered the tobacco pipe and satchel of the Turk who previously occupied our turret. Raymond is a Gaul. We communicate, tenuously, in vulgar Latin. When he lights the Turk’s pipe and holds it in the Turkish fashion he insists that we call him Sultan Raymond. Some of the brothers begin crossing themselves profusely as though to ward off his pagan spirit. A priest passes and, believing their prayers to be sincere, genuflects and bows himself in prayer.
I am Henri of Normandy, a foot soldier in the army of the triune Lord. I have journeyed this far and will journey further yet—to Jerusalem—to fulfill my vows to the Holy Roman Church and to receive penance for sin that is not mine but, for which, I am the vessel. My son bears the burden of this sin, like a fateful inheritance accepted without choice. He is afflicted with fits. Among the people it is called the “falling sickness.” Women of childbearing years will not enter our home. Sometimes we find him curled like a newborn calf with his head thrown back at a shocking angle. His tongue fills his throat and my wife must retrieve it to prevent his choking. When the fits first began, we prayed for healing and petitioned the Church for help. The priest offered a blessed iron ring from Rome, which provided some relief, but, ultimately, we were told that God does not heal sin until it is first forgiven.
My son is twelve now and has already surpassed me in height. He outgrows his tunics with such pace that my wife can sell them back at market for full value. In her latest letter she informs me that together they have already harvested the summer’s barley, oats, and peas. From a young age, he assisted me with the sheep, driving them from cote to field and back. My wife likes to observe that my son and I share a long forehead crossed with rivers that expand and contract with concern. I have raised him as a full inheritor, though he’ll never marry unless it is to someone much below him. What woman would volunteer for such a burden?
The physician instructed an herbal mixture of valerian, mugwort, mistletoe, belladonna, foxglove, bitter orange, and Peruvian bark. We cannot afford bloodletting. Unbeknownst to me, my wife took him to the gypsy oracle who claimed the fits were related to the position of the moon. Now, at night, when the moon appears I think of my son and worry and try to subdue my worry by committing prayers to St. Valentine, the patron saint of those with falling sickness, of whom a crude marble statue stands in the corner of our home.
We share a refrain in our house wherein my wife wonders aloud, songlike: “Who can know the ways of the Most High?”
To which I respond, also songlike: “What he wills, he wills, he wills…”
During the night our enemy awakens us with an astonishing noise made, I know not how, with much chattering, whistling, and shouting at the top of their voices. Then they shower our night sentries with arrows and rocks. In response, the Bishop assembles us and leads us in a Maccabean war psalm, which many of the brothers sing with such a low spirit that it discourages the rest of us.
Raymond and I return to our tent beneath a pearled moon. Neither of us expects to sleep. The hunger of the fast is forgotten in sleep, but one’s first thoughts each morning are of nourishment. Even before our fast, there was great hunger. A horse’s head without its tongue sold for thirty denarius, the intestines of a goat for twenty. At least now our hunger has God’s favor.
As we’re preparing our tent door to keep away the things that crawl along the earth, Raymond complains, again, that I call out loudly in my sleep.
I tell him I am praying.
“Ah, for your son,” he says. I do not need to search the darkness for his face to know that his words lack sincerity. Often, in the mornings after mass, Raymond will yawn loudly and boast to the others that he is now fasting of both food and sleep, thanks to me. They have come to regard me with suspicion. What they know of my son’s affliction, which is very little, does not help. Among them, I am known as the man whose thoughts are like anchors. It’s true that my mind is not always with my hands.
In response to my silence, Raymond says: “It does not sound like any prayer.”
I tell him that, as a Gaul, he wouldn’t understand the tongue. To which he responds that as a Christian, he understands at least, that it is not prayer.
I am ashamed, of course.
What some say—that, in all of Arabia one can scarcely endure the sun—is false. For night here is like our western winter. Neither my feet nor my shoulders have adequate cover.
Days pass like clouds. None of us brothers have our full wits about us. We have heard rumors of earthquakes. We have had visions. Yesterday, many hundreds of us witnessed a prodigy in the sky in the shape of a Gladius sword.
The morning of the battle, when the desert dust is still settled with dew, we take communion and march in procession behind the Bishop forming six lines just inside the city gates.
The sun hovers above the heads of our enemy like the bell of a great horn.
Because I know how to manage animals, I am asked to prepare the cavalry. Many of the horses are unfit for battle having suffered injuries during earlier campaigns, and so I go about preparing oxen for mounting. Raymond finds me in the stable as I am dressing the animals with our standard bearing the Lord’s cross. He asks if I have any work that can busy his hands. “Can you repair a bridle and bit?” I ask him.
No, he cannot.
So I tell him that I have work that can busy his feet, and send him to gather the dogs, which we will use as beasts of burden for lack of camels.
Soon the city gates will be flung open and we will face the thing that waits for us. We have armed even our women with stones and fire should the enemy penetrate the wall. The clerics have prepared our path with holy water. The Bishop tells us that what we bind here will be bound in heaven, that what we loose here will be loosed there.
In the days just before my journey, my son and I went about the house staring at each other as though through cracks in a stonewall. The evening of my farewell dinner I called for him to help me with the fatted calf. When he did not come I searched for him and found him fallen in the cote yard with the sheep grazing around him, his newest tunic torn from his own violence. After he had settled himself and I had retrieved for him some tonic, I asked him: “What is it like?”
I had asked him this before, many years ago, but received only a child’s answer. This time he explained to me that immediately before he is overcome he receives from the elements a warning: the sun becomes unbearably near; the earth wavers beneath his feet and its sounds fill his ears like drowning. When this happens, he knows to find a private place to wait for what is coming. But then, he said, it is like waiting for a whisper until you hear, instead, a scream.