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    An Apology  
 
A Stolen Tongue (Sheri Holman)


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  Brothers, you made me promise, that gray farewell day in Ulm, that in the event God should grant me safe passage across the sea, I would write down all that happened to me on pilgrimage, the good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet, by design or by accident, and thus make you my constant companions. Up until today, I have strictly honored that vow, recording the distances between places, the holy sites of Venice, how I found the food in Dalmatia, and much more that goes into the making of a travel book of pilgrimage. I turn to you now in my hour of need and beg you forgive me if, under the circumstances, I should transgress the realm of expected narration and turn this account, as emotional people tend to do, into some personal cogitation of my own.

Be assured. I am not upset.

I know a saint navigates the world in two ways: via translation, as Katherine was angelically translated from the forum in Alexandria to blessed Mount Sinai; or furta sacra -- that is, by holy theft, a translation by man. If we believe the saints have power over their own locomotion, we can only reason that Katherine no longer wished to remain on Crete. Had she chosen to stay, her hand certainly would have leapt up, gripped tight the windpipe of her would be abductor, and strangled the bIasphemous miscreant dead.

My friend Archdeacon John Lazinus hovers over us, speeding our resuming party up the gangplank.

"Hurry, Felix. They'll leave you behind!"

Contarini's ship has been spotted. On deck, sailors frantically hoist the mainsail and trinketum. Galley slaves, three to a bench, grasp their oars and pull; crewmen drag up the great iron anchors on either side of the prow. A word of warning, brothers: You might think, in times of bustle and haste, the sailors would welcome help or direction from the pilgrims, but in fact this is displeasing to them.

"Father John, you'll never guess what!" Ursus dodges the rigging and the swinging rope. "Someone stole a piece of our friar's wife."

"Felix, is this true?"

John's brown eyes are kind and concerned, like your eyes, Abbot Fuchs, when one of the brothers comes secretly to you in the night and lays his head in your lap. I don't want to take this turn of events personally, but I suddenly find it difficult to speak.

"I'll put the wine away," I whisper.

Seven ladderlike steps lead downstairs to the fetid, cavernous pilgrims' deck. All along the floor, in even rectangles, we chalk off our berths, side by side, with the ship's curving wall as our headboard and our trunks, placed toward the ship's center, serving as footboards. Only the Homesick stay belowdeck out of choice, and it depresses me even more to move among them. They love the dark, rotting wood that blocks this foreign sun and magnifies what few familiar Western smells remain: smoke and European piss, beer sweat, pine pitch. When the rest of us roll up our mattresses in the morning and suspend them from the rafters, the Homesick turn over and imagine their wives' hair on the pillow next to them, or the smell of their pet roosters' feathers on the windowsill, or the sound only their dog makes when his paws skid in frosty winter horse manure. They tell each other long detailed stories about their backyard cabbage gardens and their children's agues, but rarely listen to anyone's but their own.

I follow the aisle of luggage far back to my berth, where another smaller hatch opens onto the ship's belly. This third hold, filled completely with sand, is where pilgrims bury their perishables: meat, cheese, eggs. I push the bottles deep into the chilled sand and fasten the hatch.

"Felix, are you sad?"

Truly, God sent good John Lazinus to ease the pain of separation from you, Abbot Fuchs. He has been a comfort to me since we first met, at Zu der Fleuten in Venice, when the German innkeeper's black dog, who loved only German and loathed with an instinctual passion all Italians and Italian dogs, indeed, all Spaniards, Dutch, French, and all other races, and all their dogs -- allowed Hungarian John Lazinus to teach it to dance for ham. My spirits can't help but rise, seeing my gentle friend come toward me across the field of the Homesick.

"What kind of criminal shoves the hand of a saint into his sweaty pocket?" I ask as he nears. "I keep seeing her delicate fingers spilled across some cheap inn's bedside table or peeking from an overstuffed saddlebag, tangled with twine and old raisins. Who would do it?"

"Relics are only stolen for love or profit." My friend sighs.

"I love her! If she wanted to move, couldn't she have waited another hour? Wouldn't she have liked to come to Ulm?"

"Felix," John chides, "Tell me you don't believe that she waited until just before you arrived to grow restless. That Franciscan may not have checked the sacristy in months. She might have been taken weeks ago."

"We met a strange man at the convent," I tell John. "He was acting suspiciously, and when I spoke of God willing us to the Sinai, he suggested God's will might not be enough."

"Since we've boarded this ship," John says, "I've only heard warnings against that desert. We are seeing Jerusalem, Felix. Is achieving Sinai really so essential?"

How can I answer a question that has been put to me a hundred different ways all my life? How can I explain without scandalizing you, my brothers, without appearing light-minded and impatient with the quiet of the cloister, or guilty of the sin of idle curiosity, or moved by the Devil?

"When I was a boy," I tell John, "a traveling Greek monk came through Basle, where I served my novitiate, wearing the dust of the East like a glamour. Where our habits were fine wool and silk, his was desert homespun. Where our cheeks were smooth and soft like women's, his erupted into a long, wiry beard like a prophet's. He told my abbot he had walked overland from the Sinai desert, that he was a young man when he left and now he shuffled like a grandfather. Under his arm, he carried a small carpet tied at both ends with rope, and he asked my abbot's permission to solicit funds with what was inside it."

John's serious face makes me blush at the foolishness of my story and fall silent. It was a humid day in Basle when the monk came through. The entire monastery crowded around the altar, but I pushed between the sweating bodies to be closest. With the swift, practiced movements, the monk arranged four finger joint to spell K.M., for Katherina Martyr, and placed at the four cardinal points around them an eyelid, a toe, a vial of milk, and a piece of silk dipped in her oil. Back in the Age of Miracles, her bones used to produce enough oil for the monks to burn their lamps year round; but by the time I was a boy, oil had to be coaxed from the bones by briskly rubbing them with silk.

"Felix is in love," someone whispered behind me. But how could I not be? On our prie-dieu, Katherine stood with sword and wheel on the right hand of Mary. In our ambulatory, she smiled down from her fluted pillar on the way to our library. As one of the Fourteen Heavenly Helpers she was chiseled onto the ceiling that to my mind touched the Celestial City. Katherine was everywhere, the most popular girl in town, the scholar, the philosopher, the king's daughter, the East -- and suddenly here she was in front of me, pieces of a corporeal, human woman. I wanted to kiss the monk for bringing me her to us; he reversed the route of pilgrimage for a boy too young to leave his abbey. He brought me my first holy lust.

"If, in pieces, Katherine could find her way to me," I say aloud, "I, as a whole man, can certainly find my way back to her."

"And Lord Tucher agreed to take you there?" John asks.

"He swore on his own life."

My friends winces and gingerly reaches into his mouth.

"How is your tormentor?" I ask. John's toothy smile has been troubled by a rebel molar rotting in his jaw.

"I'll get Conrad to pull it tomorrow."

"Promise?"

"Promise." He smiles.

"Is this where the dead man slept?"

John and I look up, startled to see a man approach, hidden inside a heavy cloak of the Homesick. They hang upon his arms, wrestle with his trunk; one wipes a small flow of blood from the man's swollen lip with a handkerchief.

"What happened to him?" I ask.

"Fell down the steps," one whispers.

The man throws them off and faces me. "This was his spot, wasn't it? The drowned man's spot?"

I turn to John. I think I saw this man in Candia, shrinking back from the pale white sausage fingers of Schmidhan's sluicing corpse. He speaks the maritime merchant lingua franca with a nasal accent. Once the Homesick fall away, his long black robe and drawstring cap reveal him further as a tradesman.

"But soon we will land in Jerusalem, yes?" he asks hopefully. "Then on to Sinai?"

"My party certainly will be continuing our pilgrimage," I tell him. "I can't vouch for anyone else. There have been rumors."

"What sort of rumors?" He fingers his bonnet string into his mouth and nervously chews it.

"The captain spreads them," I say. "If we don't sail back with him -- if we cross the desert to the Sinai instead -- he loses half his fare."

"I would never cross the desert." A Homesick shakes his head. "Satyrs and Fauns live there."

"The sea is bad enough, with its sharks and Troyp," adds another.

I kneel beside the merchant, who grows more pale by the minute.

"Don't listen to them." I throw my arm around his shoulder, knowing, myself, the irrational fears that accompany any new voyage. "You'll survive."

The merchant's face is close to mine, clammy and green. He lets his cap string drop from his mouth.

"None of it matters." He sighs, collecting himself at last. "If I am to ride in the drowned man's spot, I am already dead."

 
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Excerpted from A Stolen Tongue by Sheri Holman. Copyright © 1997 by Sheri Holman. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Anchor trade paper edition published February 1998.