A Ditcher Sang…
Among the dykes of Outer Soliloquy, where the goat passes were chutes of tumbled stone and the road wended among towering trees and soaring crags crested with snow. As evil as the forest was, as much as it had once harbored the spawn of Heathenry and now lesser evils, the Elder Pikeman assured him, “Save the trees the whole mess of mountain would slurry into the road like a gutter o’ filth, Prentice.”
He was thankful that the wisest of the footmen offered understanding among these wonders so unlike those of Vester or Sililoquy, as yet his only portals upon the profane world in this yet freshly dug life among The Suffering.
The voice of the ditcher, strong in a gnawing way, echoed among the rocks above and waned among the trees all around, muffled by the drooping evergreen palms of the massive cedars and the bristling green needles of the soaring fir. He was not a big man, he who sang and swung the mattock of his trade, his various shovels arrayed against the wheelbarrow on the low side of the ditch. The squat, wiry ditcher ignored the knights, even Justice Claret, and continued his digging and dirge, using no doggerel that might offend, but making of his voice a kind of trumpet to herald his every stroke. The entire process seemed so wretched, and he was curious.
He glanced up at Justice Claret, who was listening to his smallest knight, a man who rode a mountain horse rather than a destrier. The Old Crusader, he seemed to understand things at a glance that would take others the reading of a book or a sermon, barked, from the head of the column, “Ditcher, at ease.”
The man ceased and stood leaning on his mattock, sweating in the raw cold through his bare tunic, his cloak and cowl draped on the handles of the wheelbarrow, looking up stupidly at the Knight Commander, who demanded, “The Prentice would have a word.”
The pikeman, another of this cabal of mysteriously silent communicators, then exchanged gazes with his Master and turned with two hand signals for the footmen, and they scattered into a circle around the ditcher, posting themselves and their weapons facing the rocks and trees of the menacing Pass into Hither Heathenry, one of four passes that radiated from Sacred Soliloquy, this one upward and westward, Saint Adder’s Pass littoral and southwest to Asper Humarium, Choked Pass, littoral and northwest to the abandoned Harper Humarium—lost in the grim misfortune of the Last Northern Crusade—and the Road to Vesper, southeast to the fair lands of his birth, orphanage and assignment.
‘My feet are somewhat sore, the boots unfamiliar. I so miss the sandals I wore from Vesper in summer. Yet they would not do among this rubble of the Titanic World.’
The boy would not leave his backside and was not only hauling his heavy and outsized load, the chest somehow perched upon his woolly red head, but was holding up the flowing tail of his habit, tailored to sweep a sandal-width above the floor, but hanging too low to clear the mud and stone detritus of the ditcher’s toil.
The ditcher had a brutishly resigned look upon his face and spied Prentice Dolphin with a kind of disbelief. He then sought to put the brute at ease, to make it clear that he was on no Inquisitorial Mission, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be upon you.”
The man then started, felt for the rosary which was not there, and seeing Prentice Dolphin’s majestic rosary hanging before the opaque cross on his habit, reached out to grab it with one calloused hand, then caught himself, wiped his dirty hands on his tunic, and then took the image of Christ on the cross in that still dirty hand and kissed it, and drawled, “Tank ye, Fatha’.”
What was he to do, spend an hour sketching the church hierarchy so that this poor affrighted soul might understand that he stood but one step lower than he who, in his abysmal ignorance the ditcher seemed to regard as a Papal Legate?
“Ditcher, your work is impressive, conducted alone, without soldiers to guard you, beneath this massive threat. I to do my work against the Hinterbeast to Music, in song…if often echoing only within my heart to the Blessed Mother of Angels. How does your work delay the ice?”
The man bristled with enthusiasm, “Not da ice, not da snow—what only God can hold. Da rain, what washed Noah off in ‘is tub. If da rain not seduced down off da rock, it ‘ill carve down trough da road a good soil fo’ trees, en fo’ knightly track, en fo’ botato an oniun. So I’s cut a rode fo’ da rain run to spill o’er da cliffs. It fill ebry winter wit stone drug down by da ice. When a boy, I ditched up dare, up above on da next scarp. Now I ditch down ‘ere cause da ice don’ leave up dare but fer da mont a Joo-ly.”
‘The man knows his work. If I ask another such question I may be delving into the intricacies of mud removal.’
“Ditcher, a singer I am too, in my labors. Though I sing nowhere so fair as your very organ of a voice. Does such song, instrumentalism with your voice,
eschewing the profanity of the lowly word, does this sustain you.”
‘I should transcribe this encounter and send it back to Vesper. The discovery of this rural folk tradition of organist purity would elevate my memory as a student of God and His works through men even among the monks.’
“Yezzir!” gabbled the ditcher. “Ole Davy only sangs da holy tunes, whatz I hear ebry year in da cathedral o’ Soliloquy! Only da organ hymn pass deese lips ta be sure, Fatha!”
Did he hear a snicker from a crossbowman? He was not certain.
But lo, the sound and sight of the fist of the Elder Pikeman sinking into the jerkin-padded gut of a crossbowman was unmistakable as the old pikeman walked the circle of outward posted men, and smiled gently as his scarred leathern face could to Prentice Dolphin.
‘What a frightful brute of a man. I must show favor to this fellow less he be punched as well.’
He turned, elated that he had met with some concordant soul, who sang sacredly to his work against the very beast he, 671st of his pious rank and 4th of his hopeful name, confronted on a metaphysic plane. So he requested easily, for it was a new duty, “Boy, please, the light-hued leather pouch upon the lama, hanging not from the censor but from the wine cask, bring it here.”
The boy laid down his worn and weathered chest. Draped the tail of Prentice Dolphin’s habit upon it, and darted like some monkey out of fable to the lama, retrieved the pouch, and Prentice Dolphin soon had his Indulgences for Laymen in his palm. He retrieved a plain wood bead rosary hung with an abstract cross, centered with a pendent of Jesus carrying the cross up Calvary, and hung it from the neck of the joyfully grinning ditcher.
“Tank ye, Padre—er Fatha!” beamed the pious ditcher.”
‘I do wonder what happened to his rosary. The soldiers wear none either. All except the Elder Pikeman have no rosary. Life is hard up here and he is sparred the worst duty as the sub-commander of foot. I will replace them one by one as badges of service in this undertaking—I have enough.’
Wishing to leave on a concordant note and somewhat trepid concerning the fact that he was so kept in the dark by the fighting men of this Procession to the Hinterbeast, he asked, “Ditcher David, knowing you the country above, where do you think we should find shelter this falling night? Are there more habitations above?”
The man was eager to direct him, glancing first at the Elder Pikeman before continuing, “Yez fatha, dare da ole Baily up dare on da next scarp, da wee ‘ut a my yute collapsed unda da snow dat don’ melt summa time. Da sout side gotz a entrance—solgias use it all da time. Ole Sally da shepherd-dame live up above wit ‘er hounds, lass folks of decency on da road ta Barbary…”
The man winced under the gaze of the Elder Pikeman such that the Prentice from Soliloquy feared for the fellow to ask after this “Barbary,” when he had been certain that he was headed into Hither Heathenry. For no such place as Barbary was marked on the maps of Christendom, not at Vespers and not at Soliloquy.
With a tinge of guilt, he blessed the ditcher. The Elder Pikeman was already gathering the men for marching, the horsemen lost up ahead in the wood. The Ditcher
was back to his organ song, no words crossing his lips as he aped Organist Jared’s Christmas Hymn with his squat barrel chest and thick stubble-grown lips.
They wended east, then north, then west up the pass of wooded crags, and an hour before high noon came to a clearing, above the lower pass even as the old Baily came into sight to the northwest above a snow choked wood and the horsemen could be seen riding that way in the distance. Their way had brought them through tortured twists and turns, dips and rises, back down above Outer Soliloquy. The Cathedral could be seen tiny in the distance, its brass-crowned battlements glimmering just above the dark of the distant forest they had traversed that morning.
To his joy he could hear the strong voice of the ditcher, many bowshots below, wafting up—but not in hymn.
He looked at the Elder Pikeman, and the dour brute nodded his assent and directed his youthful crossbowman, “Make certain prentice don’ slip en fall.”
The column of footmen halted, loaded under their massive packs and bearing their frightful weapons, none of which they set aside, standing as they were in double column of march. How blessed he was to walk at the head of such a column, which he had seen decorating the margins of the books of crusading hagiography he had so thrilled to read as a fosterling and then acolyte at Holy Vespers. The Elder Pikeman and the Boy and his lama stood at their head, waiting as he was walked over to the clifftop, the voice of the working man below carrying ever stronger.
‘I am truly on a blessed quest.’
His belt pulled taught as he almost slipped to his doom and the crossbowmen saved him easily and the updraft carried a clarion call of enthusiastic lyrics—not hymnal tones—up for all of the men to hear:
“En dare ole Davy goes,
Up were da Devil knows,
In da shadow o’ da ole Baily,
Fuckin’ fat ole Sally!”
His heart sank and his face froze as the column of men broke into a roar of laughter, a tide of hearty mirth not stayed by the red blush glowering from his astonished face, not stayed by the harsh fist of the one man there too blight-bitten to laugh.
As the crossbowman walked him back to the column, and the faces of the men lit with sardonic mirth, the narrow, stern, and in some barely detectable way almost kindly, gaze of the Elder Pikeman, let Prentice Dolphin know that he now trod a road not lit by candelabra, nor scented with the censor, nor ringing with hymn, but ruled by torch and sword in the hands of the grim.
Humor, crude and profane, was beyond him. Yet he sensed that it somehow knitted these brutes in concord, that his astonishment had been like a tankard of beer for their spirits, and he felt, happy, and then smiled. To this a strong hand clapped his back, that of the youthful crossbowman, his bodyguard, his very own living gargoyle it seemed, and the boy laughed as well, the men taking time to address the little fellow as they passed he and his lama and Prentice Dolphin, who now trailed the column under the protection of the youthful crossbowman, with such advice as:
“Don’ suffer da Prentice ta slip, Boy.”
“Mind da rocks, Kid, dey bite.”
“Don work da lama too ‘ard, Boy. We wanz ‘im tenda fo’ feastnight.”
“Don’ pee unda no trees, oh da Rendel ‘ill getz ya, Son.”
‘So this is a Crusade?’