Wandering creates the desert.
– Edmond Jabès
Michel dreams the dead at Antioch again.
They rise unbidden by any word but God’s, with their wounds still gaping, each one weeping as if it were a saint’s reliquary. They still have their weapons. The sand stirred up by the living feet of what remains of their army drifts through them on the wind, leaks out their eyes and haloes them with a grace that Michel can barely remember. The walls of the citadel are mercilessly high, impossible to scale without ladder and rope, and still blistering with the sun-wizened faces and glittering spears of the Turks. The dead do not care. The dead care only for the crusade, for God and His Will. They die a thousand times over again. They are inexorable, an untimely and uncalled-for resurrection, and Michel cannot remember enough of the shape of deus lo volt to fill his mouth with, stumbles on deus adjuva instead, instinctive, remembered, God aid us, help us, help me —
He wakes up parched, his mouth full of desert dust, spilling out the corners of lips too chapped to bleed.
It doesn’t in the slightest help.
Outside, it is raining, sheets of droplets puckering the surface of the Bosporus. There is no way save providence or deviltry that Michel is still alive; by the looks of the city beyond the window it is the year of our Lord two-thousand-something-with-skyscrapers, approximately enough, and he remembers being a man already thirty when first the pilgrim knights came into the desert that is Jerusalem.
Thomas is sitting crosslegged on the windowseat. Despite the steaming of his cup of tea, he has not moved an inch in the night. He is like Michel’s very own personal gargoyle, except less inclined to keep foul spirits away.
“Entreaties hardly ever work,” Thomas says, and inhales the tea-steam. It fogs up his glasses and smells of bergamot all the way across the room.
Michel rolls over in the bed and considers shoving his head underneath the pillows and ceasing to breathe. “And you would know this how?” he asks.
“Long experience,” says Thomas. “As well as trial and error.”
Michel inhales air through his nose, tasting the luxury of humidity. “Mostly error, from over here.”
“You’re the one who keeps asking for help,” Thomas says, arch, and then sighs. His teacup rattles in its saucer. “I just want to get things right. Where are we this time?”
“Istanbul,” Michel says. “Again. Look out the window, you idiot.”
Thomas puts the tea down. “Sorry,” he says. The Golden Horn curves itself peaceably enough outside the glass behind him. The tops of the new construction in Taksim glitter in the rain. “I was watching you destroy the sheets.”
“Sympathetic. Sacked or not sacked?”
“What, the sheets?”
“Constantinople. You’re deliberately obtuse.”
“Istanbul. So, yes, sacked, but not currently. Looks perfectly fine from here, nothing falling apart I can see, up with the AK Parti —”
Thomas flicks tea droplets at him from his fingertips. He never burns himself, which is the least of the ways he is infuriating. “Do shut up,” he says. “It’s a crossroads, Istanbul.”
“It’s the center of the goddamn world, Thomas. Which is why we keep ending up here. That, and it being the most direct route from Europe to the Outremer –”
Thomas interrupts him. “You can’t call it the Outremer any longer, not if we’re in the twenty-first century this go-round, it’s gauche. As well as orientalist.”
“Kindly spare me from the idea that you’ve spent the night reading critical theorists. I wasn’t aware that you could get that bored.”
“It isn’t as if you were here to keep me company. You went to Antioch all alone.”
“And woke us up in the twenty-first century, apparently. In which you can make use of all that postmodernism.”
“Critical theory is not boring,” Thomas protests. He seems more concerned with this than with how he and Michel have arrived again at the beginning of the crusade, the entire journey undone again.
Michel struggles up on his elbows. “Thomas,” he says. “Are you capable of boredom?”
“Nearly a millennium, and I’m still here with you. What do you think?”
The rain that drips down the windows casts rippling shadows on the ceiling over the bed. The frame of Thomas’ glasses glints like feldspar in the dimness, and Michel cannot quite make out his expression.
“Let me sleep?” Michel asks.
“Hardly makes a difference.”
This is how an army starves itself: there are not enough villages between Anatolia and anywhere else to glut ten thousand pilgrims on, even if each one did not come with his very own sword and the promise of heaven if only he could figure out what to stick it into. In another life, Michel tells himself, he will understand supply lines. This is not supposition but fact. In another life, he does.
Marching dissolves the boiled leather of his boots and bakes the hair on his head bone-white. His ribs have enormous swooping hollows underneath them. There is salt caked at the corners of his eyes and he does not remember crying, or having enough moisture inside himself to cry. Marching also translates him from this world to a finer one, remakes him and each of his companions in fire, and if marching takes them through a Hell borne from the plains of Megiddo, so be it, if it brings them at last to the gates of a heavenly Jerusalem rather than to the earthly one –
“You’re being self-indulgent again,” says Thomas.
“Oh fuck you,” Michel says. He turns around, spreads his arms wide like wings. “Look at me. I’ve been dragging my ass from Constantinople to Jerusalem for eight months –”
“Eight centuries. You’d think we’d learn.”
“Well, forgive me if I’d like to get there once in my miserable existence.”
Thomas pokes him, delicately, on the shoulder. His fingers are skinny and go right through Michel’s shirt, which is sapphire blue and polyester-cotton blend, and thus an abomination to the Lord but not to GQ Magazine. “Mortification of the flesh?”
“This is my dream. If I want to walk through an apocalypse, I will.”
“Accidental apocalypse,” Thomas mutters. “When Alexios Komnenos asked us to show up he just wanted a bunch of mercenaries.”
The road they’re on is going to be Highway O-21 whenever the government in Ankara gets around to building a connection between Aksaray and Tarsus. Right now it’s paved and that’s all that can be said for it. The sun reflects up off the asphalt.
“Let’s leave the Byzantines out of it. We’re not here for them. I went on this trip because of the sermon at Claremont.”
Thomas laughs at him. “Whoever shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage and shall make his vow to God, offering himself to Him as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable: he shall wear the sign of the cross of the Lord on his forehead or on his breast?”
“Urban was good at what he did,” Michel protests, without much rancor.
“Too bad he didn’t want to come along.”
“Why, Thomas,” says Michel. When he’s got Thomas staring at him through the lenses of his glasses, he crosses himself, grins, gestures toward the bleached-blue desert Heaven that shines down on them both. “Of course I’m not on Crusade. There’s not sufficient penance in this world or the next to save my soul from Hell.”
Thomas, gratifyingly, flinches.
Michel is inside the citadel.
The infidel is outside.
This recent reversal of fortunes would not be quite as funny as he currently finds it if the selfsame infidel did not have a sufficient supply of food, an item which Michel, along with all the ragged forces of Bohemond and Raymond d’San-Guilles, entirely lacks. They have starved Antioch into submission; they have taken the city four days prior, with the help of a lie and an army of the dead given back to them by the Lord, and here within this citadel they shall starve, sundazzled and besieged, surrounded by Turks and madmen.
There’s an army risen from the barren sand outside the walls, as if someone had planted dragon’s teeth in the dust. Turks are all that would grow here. There’s no water for anything else.
Thomas – Thomas proper, Thomas as Michel first met him, resplendent in a dusty bloodstained tunic and matted hair, the light of blind fervor and nothing else in his grey eyes, gets down on his knees next to Michel and says, “God is testing our resolve.” He makes the sign of the cross. He is facing Jerusalem. In this first moment he lacks everything that Michel will learn about him in the centuries to come: despair, and cleverness, and the inhumanity of either a devil or a saint.
This is a terrible dream. It is never over.
Michel is surrounded by madmen. Perhaps he is also mad. If the Crusade has claimed Antioch with the weapons and the bodies of their own dead, perhaps he has also died.
He would have crawled on his belly in the sand until he scrubbed his skin raw, for the sake of Jerusalem; if only he had not promised his body to God as well, and been used thereby!
How else has he arrived here inside of Antioch, other than resurrection out of season?
He fights off blind panic by talking to God, whether or not God is listening, which He really should be, considering that this army – that each iteration of this army – has been arrayed for His Glory and His Heavenly City. He paces the walls of the citadel, making himself a perfect target for arrows. There are no arrows in this century. Arrows would be too easy.
Thomas, who has never been God, takes his hand by the wrist and makes him sit still. Michel sinks down next to him and leans on his shoulder. Thomas hates when he does that, and has said so. Thomas hates it, and this time he brings his hand up to pat Michel’s hair gingerly, so Michel throws every sort of caution to the wind: if Thomas is being kind to him, he must be being exceptionally pathetic this time around. Perhaps pathos will get him closer.
“The Jerusalem we could get,” he says, “the conquerable one, the one that’s full of people, the one that’s got buses that get suicide-bombed and Hebrew University and the Dome of the Rock, that one’s all so much impossible dross.” He spits the words. Dross. Like dust, it clings to his lips.
“Have you earned the heavenly one?” Thomas asks him.
Michel will receive the heavenly Jerusalem when he finally succumbs to famine and the perfect entrapment of this citadel and his siege of it, which is to say never – but what he says is, “Would I be here if I had? That’s a stupid question, Thomas.”
Thomas shrugs, his shoulder moving against Michel’s cheek. “I’m here. I keep being here.”
“If you’re trying to tell me that you’ve managed to cast off this earthly prison –”
“Absolved I’m not,” Thomas says.
Michel mutters, “Good.”
“Our hands,” Thomas says, “when we were here at the beginning, our hands were covered with the blood of this city and every city we ever passed through and devoured, in Thrace and Dacia and Anatolia –”
“Predation, deprivation,” Michel says with false brightness.
“Betrayals and deceits,” Thomas corrects him, “but in the service of the Lord, and I thought – why not? Maybe we’d get to Jerusalem and it would be Heaven after all.”
“We found the Holy Lance here,” says Michel. “Didn’t we? Bartholomew dug it up from a ditch behind the nave in the Cathedral of St. Peter, he was just a monk, I remember – he dug in the dirt until his fingers bled and he was in rags and they might as well have been cloth-of-gold –”
“You dreamed that.”
“We all dreamed that.”
“And we marched out against the Turk the next day and it didn’t matter if we lived or died, is that the story you want to tell?” Thomas stares at the paved stone of the citadel wall between his feet. His shoes are wingtip oxfords and not scuffed enough for the walking they’ve done.
“It didn’t matter because we were already dead,” Michel says. “And already risen.”
“In the forgiving heart of God.”
Michel holds his hands out, turns them palm-up, palm-down. They are grey, wizened, windblasted and decaying. “Right here and right now.”
Thomas stands up, so fast that he leaves Michel listing violently sideways. He refuses to look at Michel in his true bodily state; instead he stares at the sky as if it was actually Heaven.
“This is wrong,” Michel says. His tongue is a desiccated slug of muscle, dry and drying in his mouth. The skin across his cheeks cracks with the effort, and the desert air pours through the stringy shards of what remains. “Maybe we should have come by ocean –”
Thomas interrupts him. “That is a worse story,” he says, too fast, stumbling over the words. “In that one, we glut ourselves on silver marks and set the Library of Constantinople on fire and desecrate – everything, Michel –” He stops talking. In the silence afterward, Michel thinks they both have stopped breathing, the fiction of the necessity of air at last exposed as a pretense.
It is a long time before Michel can find the will within himself to ask, abject, “What am I supposed to do differently?”
Slowly, Thomas turns to face him. “Why do you think I know?” he asks. He has become transparent. The sand on the wind blows through him, strikes Michel’s face.
Rain is falling into the Bosporus, harder, a rush of pattering sound. Michel opens his eyes. The dust pours from his mouth as if it is chrism and he is the reliquary. He blinks, and blinks, and finds Thomas, kneeling at the side of the bed.
“How does one,” Michel says, his voice crackling, “stop from wanting Heaven.”
Thomas is gathering the dust in printless fingers, making a pile of it on the sheet. He looks up at Michel, and Michel thinks the cast of his mouth is hopeful. He can’t be sure. Hopeful is not one of Thomas’s standard expressions.
Thomas says, “Patience.”
He will make a charm of the desert-dust, a sympathetic compass. Michel imagines it around his neck in a philter, and shudders. “That is not enough. Desire also is patient.”
“Perhaps so is God.”
“Then there would be some reachable equality. I dreamed all of the dead –” He stands. He goes to the window, opens it, shoves his hands – whole, unmarked flesh – through the narrow gap. The rain on his palms smells of nothing but water.
“And this is the center of the world. You are not cast out so very far, Michel.”
He makes a cup of his hands, allows the rain to pool in it.
When he turns around Thomas is waiting for him, standing at his shoulder and holding out his coat over one arm. His face remains in that hesitant, unsettled state that Michel doesn’t have a name for.
“We ought to go,” he says.
Michel thinks of the road, stretching endless before them; the mirage of the holy city, ephemeral in the desert. “Better question, Thomas. Will we stop?”
Michel tips his cupped hands over and lets what he had gathered fall in indistinguishable rivulets onto the carpet. Emptied, the vessel of his palms feels transmuted, slick without water.
Thomas encloses his palms in his own, as if he is grateful, and smiles.