The Pilgrim–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Chapter 8–The Pilgrim
“Birdy, you awake?” Peter opened the door to Robin’s chamber and shined a lantern into the room. Robin had been awake for a little time after the old woman left, thinking over his dream to continue west, when the turning of the door knob surprised him. He was relieved to see Peter, happy for the company of one less clairvoyant and mysterious.
Peter shut the door and hung the lantern onto a hook in the wall before grabbing a squat stool from the corner of the room and loudly dragging across it the wooden floor, setting it beside the bed. Peter stumbled through his motions, collapsing as he sat on the stool. Robin smelled on him what seemed an entire bottle of brandy, and was reassured to notice that much of it had actually made it to Peter’s insides. Peter belched loudly and spoke a phrase in a guttural language Robin did not understand, apologizing or toasting his health. Beyond the room must be numerous tunnels, Robin reckoned, but within this chamber he heard no sound of activity coming from outside. He suspected the dirt walls insulated the compact caverns, and the din of silence Robin was left with, when he was alone in the room, had been unnerving and kept him awake. The blundering boisterousness of a drunken Peter was the exact remedy his sagging spirits needed to enliven his chilly body and return his mind that, when not shepherded, always wandered west.
“You not awake, are you?” Peter asked. Robin’s eyes were open and he looked curiously at Peter for a moment, unsure how to respond.
“No,” Robin said finally.
“I supposed to let you rest, they say, but everyone resting, and I know you only one awake. Red drink make you feel cold, no?”
“I suppose it does,” said Robin.
“Drink is bad. I had once, and never again. That’s why Peter very different from others in the valley. I my own man, I make my own decision. I no like these other old ones, who need rest so much now. Maybe I leave, like Alfonso. He was own man, too; and crazy, like me. It’s good to know you like Alfonso. Once, I thought things different, here, but still the same. Maybe worse. Same everywhere, you know Robin? Same everywhere,” He slipped into a language of harsh consonants. Robin did not understand, but he also did not mind.
Peter continued until finally, looking questioningly at Robin, he implored, “No? No? No?”
“No,” Robin replied.
Peter chuckled to himself. “Oh, little birdy, you are right, very right. I have been wrong all my life, but grace of God tells me I’m wrong and for some it is curse but for me it is life. A cursed life. Life that led me to this place, where now I wander and stagger awake, while many bad people sleep for the night, and many good people sleep forever.”
Peter proceeded to tell Robin the story of his life.
Winter had been cold and spring had been rainy, and when fall came that year and it was time to harvest, as it was the year before and every year before that, uniquely, this time, all the crops were dead. Peter remembered early in his youth how simple the growing of grain seemed, and how shocked he was to learn that one year, nothing grew at all. He lived with his Junker father in the city, who he accompanied on visits to the country only a couple times a year. That year, the usual harvest festivities on the country estate were cancelled. His father’s provincials had forsaken them. The money was running out, and though things were bad for his father in the country they were even worse in the city. The old guilds were falling to a new wave of industrials that plagued the traditions of the Empire, and city life became fraught with danger. This was four decades ago, Peter reckoned, in Prussian occupied Poland, his ancestral squatting grounds.
Upset as he was by the failure of the harvests and the changing of their lifestyle, Peter the youth was entirely preoccupied with other thoughts. As a young man, he desired to love as many women as possible; but his greatest desire was to, quite literally, make a name for himself.
His father’s financial woes kept him from activity in politics during that time, as did his own preoccupation with the opposite sex, but Peter was not entirely ignorant of the important changes occurring amongst the people during that time. Peter had grown up with the local tongue, was taught French by tutors, and spoke proper German and Polish with equal fluency, the advantages of growing up in cosmopolitan company and on a country estate, and in every language of the Empire Peter heard the talk of freedom in the air, and rights, and other words complex and dubious. Words too abstract for a young boy and the ignorant population of a country to understand, his father said. The protests started about that time, followed by the killings and the arrests and the trials. Peter, too young to be involved in activities against the state himself, was of the age to seek out older acquaintances that were happy to boast to Peter the significance of their defiance.
One night, after one such meeting with some older friends on their campus, Peter was walking home when he too was arrested, though he was given no reason as to why. At first he thought it was because of his father, then later he thought it was because of his mixed associations, but after a few silent years he thought there was no why, that he had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
He spent the remainder of the revolution in prison. Afterward, when it was over and he was allowed to reenter society, he found the revolution had changed nothing. However, in prison, much had changed for Peter.
When he had entered prison, as a young bourgeois son, he was full of the confidence that comes with learning but without the experience to back it up; it was only a matter of weeks before he received his true education. There, political prisoners mixed with street criminals and foreign spies, and after a while it became difficult to tell one from the other. All the men inside talked of only one thing: what they would do when they got out. One urchin said he would kill his wife’s lover, and then probably his wife. Another said he would ruin the bank that had ruined him, and those who had prospered in his demise. A third said he would go back to fighting the Emperor; and everyone else if he had to. Peter saw each of them as the same man; each scared that, for them, life was over. Rather than wallow in his own perplexing misfortune, nurturing the seeds for revenge, Peter became fascinated by his fellow inmates, and studied closely their every behavior. At birth, Peter’s most prized gift had not been his family’s station, but the pleasantness of his round face, which made him seem a true, good-natured confidante to all manner of persons. The prisoners confided in him, one by one, trusting his face more than if he were an ordained priest, hearing confession, and he listened to their worries and absolved them with a tender smile, and never spoke of them to another. His early knack for languages also allowed him to quickly learn enough to communicate in the patois of Italian, Hungarian, Russian, and English, spoken by the drifters and suspected foreign spies condemned to the prison.
From such modest beginnings, Peter accidentally became the most important man in prison. The prison was run at the top by German guards and staffed by imprisoned Poles, but the most dangerous and underhanded group inside were the Hungarian drifters, mostly Gypsies. Peter was in the middle of them all, and gradually began running messages and working deals, setting up a crude, triangular exchange within the prison hierarchy. The upper-class Germans and foreign spies were the wealthiest prisoners and eventually, if any items or privileges were bought or sold, it happened only through the exchange, and only through Peter. No one else was trusted by either side. Peter’s jolly face gave him power in a place where trust was the only true currency. Peter, doing nothing but clumsily translate various languages and offer the occasional smile, was rewarded for his effort with the trust of all. The most dangerous man in prison, Zoltan, a wiry old street criminal from Budapest who had killed several inmates and countless others on the outside, and who had the distinction of being the leader of the imprisoned Hungarian Gypsies, also recognized the usefulness of Peter and his services.
Horrifyingly, the old Gypsy Zoltan became attached to Peter. He had been calculating the way, for a long time now, of escaping, and it was only through Peter he could finally make the necessary arrangements in secret. They arranged forged documents and a Viennese compatriot to seclude several Hungarians and ferry them back to the land of their hovels. Peter was instrumental in convincing the imprisoned Poles to stage a fake revolt, to serve as a distraction for the unknowing German guards while the real escape occurred. Weapons were procured, knives mostly, and even horses and fresh clothes were said to be waiting for them at a safe house somewhere in town. The smaller the group on the road the better, Zoltan had said, but he needed one more; he needed Peter. Peter could not refuse, for to do so meant his certain death. He accepted without hesitation.
While inside Peter learned his father had died, that his land and property had been seized by debt collectors. Peter was allowed to retain only his family’s title, but that name had no use to him on the inside. Peter had grown old in prison, despite having not reached the age of twenty, and he had encountered many examples of men, but found none worth imitating. The prisoners he spent his time with were all running away from something, looking for a way out, seeking escape, and like the people of his country Peter felt discontent. When forced by Zoltan to escape with him, Peter said yes, but inside he knew he would never go, that he must escape by himself and he must do it soon.
Throughout his time in prison, Peter’s one problem as the great confessor was it left him with no one to confide in for himself. The burden of others’ secrets was small, but the burden of his personal tortures turned out to be too oppressive to bear. He sought someone trustworthy. Bribing the guard on duty, Peter crept from his cell to the sick ward. There he looked amongst the beds for one on the verge of death, that his secrets might be transferred from his conscious and sent to the underworld. He finally stopped at the feet of an old man, who already looked like a corpse. Peter stood over the bed and when the man awoke he smiled and spoke, and in his greeting Peter discovered the ancient man was Bavarian.
The fragile Bavarian was surprised but pleased, and listened when Peter talked and talked when Peter stopped. He was dying, as Peter saw, and had been for a while. Imprisoned when Napoleon came through, he had somehow never been released. He had a son who had gone to America to escape hardship and shame, who he had never heard from again. He had been trying to stay alive that a Catholic priest might hear his final confession, but he was glad at least Peter was there, an answer to his prayers. Peter blessed him, it was the least he could do, and heard the dying man’s final confession. The dying man was happy to hear Peter’s as well, and after trading confessions he gave Peter one last piece of advice.
“Don’t escape,” the dying Bavarian said to Peter. “Seek! You must not run from something, but to something! Then you will know if you are successful or not. When can you ever decide to stop running away? That is a path that never ends. But if you seek an end, you will find it. The distinction is subtle, but important. A religious man like yourself, there are many ways you can escape this life by running to God. Seek Him in those places here on earth where He makes Himself known, and your escape will happen as if by accident. Here inside these walls for these many decades I have sought knowledge and God, and I have escaped thousands of times. But there are also fixed places on this earth that are known by some where you can journey, suffering many hardships, to be rewarded on your arrival by a blessing directly from God. My son, you must venture forth on a pilgrimage. At its end, you will be saved.”
Afterward, the dying man slipped into a delirium, and began talking to Peter as if he were his own son, estranged in America and the land of the living. Peter spent the night at his bedside, and in the morning, after the old man’s soul had departed, Peter did as well. He felt infinitely better having told his woes to another, and was on the way back to his cell considering his pilgrimage when he ran into Zoltan. What had Peter been doing? Zoltan questioned, and why was Peter not available when Zoltan wanted? Peter apologized and told Zoltan an old friend of his had died and he had been in the infirmary. Zoltan nodded and said not let it happen again, for they were bumping up the departure date, and the escape was happening that evening.
Back in his cell, Peter thought over his options. He would take a pilgrimage, but where? East to Jerusalem? To Rome? To the Holy sites in France, or Spain, or Portugal? To the Mecca of the Infidels? Every place in Europe and the East had its sacred ground, but all were filled at that time with the noise of God and Revolution. But if he stayed in his home land, he would find no escape. They would throw him in jail again, or he would be forced to use his talents to survive amongst an inmate population. He suffocated on an idea that freedom was nonexistent, that he could run to the end of the known world and still be trapped. He rubbed his aching head in agony and let out a feeble moan. But was the dead Bavarian right? Was his search for God the only way to become free? Peter believed that was the direction his life must take. He would venture west, on a pilgrimage to the end of the world, to the peace of the Pacific Ocean, where he hope to find freedom. The journey seemed immense and unfathomable to him, like God Himself, but deciding upon a baptism in the salty Pacific as his personal pilgrimage Peter felt a great relief. That is until, as dusk approached, Peter heard a loud uproar in the common area, and Zoltan appeared standing in front of his cell.
Zoltan, eyes wide and greedy in anticipation, barked for Peter to hurry, the others were already waiting, and tossed him a knife. Without thinking, weapon in hand, Peter approached Zoltan and stabbed his throat with a quick but awkward thrust. Peter pushed the blade in deep, knocking away Zoltan’s hands as he clutched at his neck, and knew that now he was on the path that would bring him to the face of God.
“I will not be imprisoned by the likes of you,” Peter said as Zoltan’s blood soaked his shirt. Peter let go of the knife and Zoltan collapsed to the ground, angry and dead. Polish voices in uproar were heard in the commons. Peter quickly changed clothes and dressed in the German guard uniform he had procured through many secret bribes, shaving his bearded face to complete the look necessary for his planned exit. He ran into the commons, unnoticed and baton raised, and beat the rioting Poles with his fellow Teutonic guards. The prisoners became too much of a match for the guards however, as others joined the Poles, and the position of the guards rapidly looked exposed. ‘I’ll go get help,’ Peter shouted in German to his comrades, and ran out the commons through the corridors to the prison’s front gates. There, the guards had already abandoned their post, leaving the gate unlocked, and Peter, strolling out unmolested, saw pure sunlight and breathed fresh air for the first time in four years. But his mind was not occupied with thoughts of joy from his escape or freedom, because he was still trapped. He directed his mind to think of the next step on his long journey, as he has continued to do every day since for his entire life.
Feeling no remorse for Zoltan or the unlucky Hungarians, or the Poles whose heads he bashed in as he made his way through the prison, he rationalized each unfortunate act as a single cobblestone paving a long road to God, and Peter knew there required more. He crossed greater Germany during the day and slept in the forest or under the stars at night. He never sought out his father’s grave or any living, distant family, or even their former country estate. He assumed many prior friends of his had either died in the revolution or attained places of prominence in the new government, and he’d rather not find out who had suffered which fate.
From Prussia he entered Hanover, and eventually made it to the Low Countries and the port of Rotterdam. His pleasant face, his ability with language and his ease with the mannerisms of both the vulgar and rich served him equally as well on the outside as it had in prison. And with every picked pocket, shady deal, and stolen loaf of bread, Peter knew he was on the right path. Eventually, all of his sins would add up and become so great that God would finally appear to him and Peter would tell him of his pilgrimage, and God would be forced to absolve him and Peter would be free. Every misdeed meant the path had become just a little bit shorter, to where Peter constantly felt blessed by every crime, subduing his penitence and sinning perpetually.
Once in America, he found the behaviors of his so-called devout lifestyle to fit in perfect accordance with those of this new land. Peter cut a swath of sin across America, from New York harbor to California, lying and stealing, occasionally defending himself from other criminals, but mostly doing great harm to himself. He followed the same course west as many other German speakers had done before him, and he found that going to the end of the world was the least original idea of the times, with a population stirred by prospects of gold. He was loath to pick up that trade, as parting gold from the earth is much more difficult than parting gold from a person, and crossed the west with ease by doing the latter. By the time he saw the shimmering Pacific, from a distance, he was already an outlaw with a name of some notorious renown.
Alone on his horse, he cantered down the mountains and the hills to the sandy ocean shore, soaking up the experience of the Holy ground and giving himself over to the sacrament. He waded into the water and dunked his head and a wave of emotion came over him. He wept for his father and he wept for the Bavarian and he wept for Zoltan, and for all the people he had cheated and abused and killed on his journey of sin and sacrilege. Peter cried his tears into the ocean, and saw that once the salty water of his eyes escaped they were immediately enveloped by the overwhelming greatness of the sea. Having an epiphany, Peter realized he was himself but one tear in a great ocean. He was the water and the water was life and the water was God. The Bavarian had told him to seek a pilgrimage, as he had, but where Peter traveled the world the Bavarian never left his cell, saving himself many times over throughout his internment through an exploration that was inward. The tearful waves of the Pacific crashed onto the shore. If Peter was his tear and his tear was God, Peter need only take a pilgrimage into his own conscious and soul to find what he sought, and hear the voice of God tell him he was free.
When he closed his eyes and looked into his soul Peter saw only darkness, a black void that seemed eternal. The collective weight of his sins had corrupted him, and he feared God would offer no salvation to this blackness. Turning from the vastness of the ocean, Peter looked into the country and into himself. The land appeared to him like his soul, a territory restricted by failures and misdeeds, a great tunnel of darkness through which he must travel deeper into if he ever is to see the light at its end. The lesson of the Bavarian, once a model of living, had not worked, and he cast it away as he had his father’s title. The knowledge of his life, the experiences he had gained in prison and on his travels of sin, seemed false to him. God did not exist at the end of a journey of thousands of miles, just as he did not exist inside Peter. There was only his darkness and he vowed to let that darkness lead him always until his end. He had strived to make a name for himself, but the blackness within him showed him he was nameless.
And so, led by darkness, Peter found the valley. As it did with Robin, the sunlight healed him, at least for a time . That is, until he met the Prince. But that’s another story, Peter said.
“Back to sleep now, ok birdy? You need rest, and be healthy. Hah! You don’t know, but you have big journey, and it’s coming for you real soon. So sleep!” Peter said as he left, closing the door behind him. But it was many hours before Robin finally drifted off to sleep, haunted as he was by the story of the nameless pilgrim…