Community writing program spotlight

Friday, November 9, 2012

Pilgrimage to the Dedication of the Church: St. Peter's of the Black Forest, 1501

There were jugglers. There was a sword swallower. There was a man with a tiger in a cage. There was a man with a Turk in a cage. From Freiburg to St. Peter's monastery, along the eighteen miles of dusty, rutted highway and up the narrow mountain road, performers and vendors were working the flow of pilgrims headed to the new church. Michael stared from the back of the cart until his head felt ready to explode from the strain of taking in everything and the responsibility of pointing it all out to little Gerta. "Look Gerta, a man juggling knives." A mile later, a man juggled burning torches. From his black horse, which he rode alongside the cart, Jakob told of seeing a juggler in Italy who could keep six balls in the air while standing on a galloping stallion.

Most of the young women in the crowd seemed to find Jakob the most fascinating thing to behold. For the Schwarze Reiters were the elite of the Landsknechte soldiers, fearsome Black Riders with all black horses and three matchlock pistols, two in saddle holsters and one stuck into a heavy boot.

The sword swallower was so fascinating, Michael was able to cajole his father into stopping the cart. But then his mother grew faint at the sight of the sword disappearing into the fellow's gullet. Still, they stayed so long, Jakob felt obligated to toss the fellow some coins from the back of the black horse.

Every so often along the route, groups of coarse players enacted such tales as the story of Pope Joan, who pretended to be a man and was made Pope but came to ruin when she bore a child. Beside a stream where people paused to rest and refill their water containers, a Meistersanger filled the air with lyric poetry set to music. His song told of a man named Neidhart, who found a violet and rushed off to tell the Duchess. While he was gone, a peasant came by and picked the violet. So Neidhart flew into a rage.

At this point, Michael's family moved on, and Michael worried about what became of the peasant until he realized that a mime was walking along beside their cart, imitating his gloomy expression to the amusement of the other travelers around them. When he tried to wave the mime away, the fellow made the exact same gestures as Michael, so that his audience laughed even more. Michael could feel his face burning hot, and he was terrified that he would cry in front of all these people. Mercifully, Jakob lifted him from the cart onto the black horse, and they moved away from the nasty mime.

Musicians played along the roadsides or moved along with the crowd. Michael did not know the names of many of the instruments, but Jakob did. What's that? It's a portative organ. A bagpipe. A hurdy gurdy. Pipe and tabor. Jakob has seen many of these played by soldiers in camp. There was nothing he did not know.

Though their mother had packed dried meat, bread, and a crock of pumpkin compote, they could not resist the smells of the food vendors cooking along the road. Spicy sausages sizzled in skillets. Whole pigs turned on spits, one which moved by a dog-powered treadwheel. And beer flowed in a river of streams from casks and kegs. Mother, can we have the gingerbread cookies that look like St. Anthony's pig?

But more interesting to Michael than the food, the music, the sword swallower, were the relic peddlers, whose wares were displayed in handcarts above which rows of bones and statues hung on lines. Michael lingered over a short rib once belonging to the little girl that Jesus raised from the dead.

"Technically," the relic seller explained in calculated honesty "she is not actually a saint. But," his voice changed to a low, slow monotone, "her name was Tabitha, and she was just your age when she died. From the plague, I think. It was her funeral procession, that it was. And Jesus walked by. He saw the mourners. They wailed. They cried. He saw the little girl in the coffin. Oh the lovely little girl. Oh the sad mother. Jesus stopped. He put out His blessed hand." The relic vendor reached his grubby hand toward Michael. "He touched her. And UP she sprang!" Michael jumped. "After Jesus raised her," the vendor went on, "she lived to be 97, and herself raised many puppies from the dead."

Michael imagined Tabitha as a ten-year-old German girl dressed in a chemise and kirtle, her hair in one long braid wound around her head. She would be the perfect guardian for him, a sort of celestial collaborator. She could not only protect him from sickness but also help him out if he ran afoul of his father.

"Father, if you will buy me this, I will never ask for anything else."

"I thought you wanted a pony."

Michael hesitated. The rib or the pony. The little girl's face came into his mind. She had blonde hair. "No this, Father. Not the pony."

But the side of his father's face was a hard knot. Michael turned to his devout mother for assistance, but she too looked displeased with the whole situation. She took his arm. "Let's go Michael."

"But Mother--"

She maneuvered him through the crowd to their cart. Once settled, he felt a wave of hostility. Even the new thing his father bought him did not console him. It was for writing and was called a pencil. A stick of lead inside a hollow wooden tube. But he sulked for thirty minutes after the cart began to roll and the little blonde girl's rib was lost forever. Someday, he would be grown and would have any saint's bone he wanted.

Alison Taylor-Brown spends half her time in the 16th century, which is why she's usually running late. This scene is an outtake deleted from her novel, Artificial Life, which follows the stories of a 21st-century biochemist and a 16th--century monk turned Anabaptist. See a trailer for Artificial Life at

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