This Shining Blade
A vignette of historical fiction by Niels C. Kwakernaak
Written in the Winter of 2013
WIPING THE SWEAT off my forehead, I looked down from the hilltop, in dire need of a rest. The sun was setting and the last rays of light shone brightly against the roof tiles of the Holy Virgin’s inn. As I prompted my horse, I saw the golden glow illuminating the heavens. This scene was in bitter contrast to what I would find inside—darkness, the remorse of a life spent in shame; a sentiment that was well known in this day and age.
I dismounted and allowed a last fill of clean air into my lungs, then entered into dead silence marred by the smell of labor. There was no laughter, no untamed brawling. Old men hung with their noses above their pints. Lighted by the candles in front of them, they stared into nothingness. Slow and tired, the bearded innkeeper gestured me a seat in the corner. As I watched the man preparing my order, I heard the door opening. My eyes—just adapted to the dark—prickled when I looked into a black figure against the afternoon sun.
The young monk was clothed in an extravagant long robe with sashes. The bald-shaven saint lowered his pointy hood, looked around, and sat down at the bar. All the guests seemed in awe of his presence.
All except for one.
One old man with sagging shoulders stared ahead through seasoned eyes. The fiery anger and gloominess that hovered over him frightened me as much as it made me curious.
He turned toward the monk. “You’re the kind of person who’d give his intestines to see it, right?” His voice was slow and raspy.
“Excuse me?” the monk said.
“The Holy City. Have you ever seen it? Walked its streets, touched the ancient stones?”
“No,” the monk said, “though ever since childhood, I’ve been desirous to. To see its gates and to worship in its churches.”
“What’s your name, my lad?”
“Well, Joseph, I have been there,” the old man said. “It’s magnificent. After dozens of battles against the heathen and a three-year journey, I could finally lay my eyes on it. We redeemed it, you know? In the year of our Lord 1099, by order from his Holiness the Pope himself, we released Jerusalem from the hands of the Muslims.”
Joseph smiled. “Then you, my Lord, are a brave warrior,” he said. “You gained the victory over our hated enemies, and you survived in honor.”
“Hardly,” the old man grumbled, gazing in the dark. “There’s more, you know. God knows there’s more . . .”
“May I ask you your name?” Joseph looked into the burdened old eyes.
“Geron,” he said, tapping his fist on his heart. “Search for it in the book of life. You will not find it. You know, lad, I’ve been told it means something like ‘guardian.’” He laughed, mocking the statement. “Some people live up to their names; others find themselves among the exceptions that confirm the rule.” He filled his lungs with air and held it in. “You know what else they’ve been telling me? They’ve been telling me the Christ himself is a Jew. A Jew . . . A son of the devil, an enemy of God. Can you imagine?”
“Well, the Lord works in mysterious——”
“I’m so tired of these falsehoods.” Geron stood up and banged with his fist on the bar. “If there is a God, then he wasn’t there. We redeemed Jerusalem but brought upon our souls an unforgivable depth. When our Lord, the Pope, decreed that Jerusalem be taken, our mission was to kill all the enemies of God. But who are they, monk? Who are they?”
The silence was nerve-wracking. Among some others, I took my pint and moved a little closer to the drama.
“Answer me. Who are they, the enemies of God?”
“The Muslims,” Joseph said.
“And? Who else?”
“You said it yourself—the Muslims and the Jews.”
Geron raised his arms, and his voice echoed violently through the inn. “Kill a Jew and save your soul. That was the credo! And we believed it.” He looked us in the eyes, one by one. “So, why—we reasoned—why wait? Why should we wait to kill the enemies of God when we have them right here, living among us? Jews everywhere.”
The inn was taken by breathlessness more sickening than before.
“Why?” Geron continued. “Why would they have the right to live among us in our great Christendom but not in Jerusalem?”
I stepped forward and heard myself ask, “What did you do?” He looked at me, and I felt his eyes piercing through me—oh, the agony I sensed in him.
“We slaughtered every Jew we could find. We started in Worms and Meinz. Like cancer, our atrocities spread out through the Rhineland—and lots of other places, so I’ve heard. Tens of thousands . . . all killed in the name of the Holy Pope.” He waved his fists in the air and shouted, “Slaughtered in the name of that Godforsaken church. Yes—in the name of the Christ himself.”
Slowly, Geron drew his sword from his sheathe as the sound of cutting metal resonated in the minds of the beholders. He laid the blade carefully in my hands. It was heavy and cold.
“You feel that?” he said. “You know how many? I stopped counting after eight hundred and twenty-two. Eight hundred and twenty-two innocent Jews murdered by this very blade.” He sighed. “You should have seen them. They were holding each other: mothers their children, husbands their wives, comforting each other until this blade fell on them. Cutting them. Killing them . . . This sword. In my hands.”
He sat down and waved his hand through his greasy hair. His shoulders lowered. “There was never a place I felt safer than in my mother’s arms.” He looked up at me with watery eyes. “Not a night passes by without seeing the looks on their faces—oh, they haunt me day and night. The core of my being is wretched.”
I tried to give the heavy steel back to him, but he refused to take it.
“That cursed thing is my testimony against me.” He clenched his mud-stained hands into fists. “You know, it gets even better. For two months, we besieged it—Jerusalem. In the end, a battering ram cut through the Northern Wall. What happened within those walls is too monstrous to utter in words. We killed them all. We left none alive, Muslim nor Jew. They could cry and beg for mercy all they wanted, but the holy goal justified all means. A mission worth more than hundreds of thousands of human lives. In the name of Christ, Church, and Cross . . .” His voice lowered. “For God’s sake. What faith or idea can be worth more than human lives? Yet we slew them all—men, women, and children. Armed or unarmed. Fighting or surrendering.”
Crippled by war, Geron limped to the back of the inn. He stood facing the wall and turned his head toward us. “Blood splattered up to our thighs when we ran through the narrow streets, battering to death every Jew and every Muslim in our way. I saw my fellow warriors covered in blood from toe to skull, as if they were bloodthirsty demons. All these bloody cries for mercy keep resounding in my mind—Don’t you believe in our God? Are we not the apple of his eye?—oh, they cried and screamed. At night, I lie crying in my bed and the voices never stop.”
Joseph walked to him and laid his hand on his shoulder, “They wasted that status when they killed out Lor——”
“Silence!” He shouted, loosening himself from Joseph’s embrace. “We gathered them on a plaza in front of a wooden synagogue. Hundreds, maybe even a thousand of them.” The slow and tormented tone crept back into his voice. “We forced them all in—into the synagogue, all of them—and closed the heavy doors. No one could get out. And we set the damned building on fire—burning all these men, women, and children alive. Holy business in the name of God, they call it. Well, I heard the screams. Oh, they screamed. It was godless.” He sighed as if carrying an unbearable burden. “We couldn’t stand it: the screaming and crying, begging and pleading drove us mad. At the top of our lungs, we tried to sing against it—Oh, great Lord, we adore thee—but the wretched wailing was too loud; too nerve-wracking; too accusing—oh, it accused my inner being. The screams faded into silence when the roof collapsed, and nothing but a smoldering mass remained . . .” He sighed and raised his hands to heaven. “What have we done? Why was no one asking it—what have we done? Why was there no one who questioned our right? No one who dared open his mouth? We were all dead silent, gazing into the glistening ashes, and heard nothing but the singing of birds. The little things never stopped chirping. They didn’t care.
“After some time, we heard couching and moaning from beneath the ashes. A fellow crusader drew his sword and began battering the piles of charred carcasses until everything was dead and the silence was almost peaceful. That’s our great religion. That’s the story behind the churches in which you wish to worship your God.”
Nobody dared speak a word as a collective realization of guilt came over the listeners, including me. My heart ached, and tears burned in my eyes. I hadn’t touched my pint, and Geron’s sword was still clenched forcefully in my hands.
“You hypocrites!” Geron cried at the top of his lungs. “I’ve seen what Christianity does, and it haunts my soul—in the day, in the night, when I sleep, eat, and drink. We killed them, slaughtered them, and burned them. And for what? So that we could worship in some building? Oh, yes, you know what we did next? You know? We went to the church of the Holy Sepulcher, and we celebrated Holy Communion. We feasted! We drank the wine of Christ’s blood—Christ’s Jewish blood from his own Jewish veins—blood that he shed for us. I took the cup—but damn it, I had shed the same blood till it reached my knees.”
“I know your sins are forgiven,” Joseph said, “for the blood you shed was the blood of devils—you know that. They killed our God, Jesus Christ, and they deserve no other treatment than you’ve given them. You did well.”
Geron lowered his shoulders and grimaced. “You’re a blind hypocrite, you know that? His blood will never be enough to atone for the killings of thousands of his brethren. No, my bald-headed brother, I will burn. And I deserve it.”
With his shoulders low and his head down, he passed me by on his way to the door. I followed him to bring him his sword. He looked up at me and thanked me, his eyes red and defeated. I cast my arm around his shoulder and walked him out into the night.
Bitter tears covered my tunic while the man cried for forgiveness.
A vignette of historical fiction by Niels C. Kwakernaak Written in the Winter of 2013 WIPING THE SWEAT off my forehead, I looked down from the hilltop, in dire need of a rest. The sun was setting and the last rays of light shone brightly against the roof tiles of the Holy Virgin’s inn. As…