THE CROSSING OF CHRISTOPHER
By Avellina Balestri
Word count: 3123
Summary: A retelling of the story of St. Christopher
There once lived a man named Darrick, with strong arms and bulging muscles, a smith by trade, accustomed to hammering down metal and bending it to his will. In the village, he was renowned for being able to best any man in a fight, and women often whispered to themselves about their secret desire to be held in his arms.
But Darrick wanted more from life than what the locality had to offer. He wanted power and prestige, for he was not only strong, but clever too, and thought himself worthy of a higher dwelling place than his late father’s smithing shop. The men he brawled with and the women who desired his affections were all commoners. He had grander hopes than to remain among them.
So one day he set off towards the capital city of the realm, hoping to serve the most powerful man in the kingdom. There he went into the service of a merchant prince named Dior. Dior was the wealthiest man in the land, known for his shrewd business dealings and ruthless transactions. His power was unquestioned, and any who dared oppose him were quickly crushed underfoot. He had grown fat off the food of the poor, taken away when loans could not be paid and rents could not be met.
Darrick, although he did not approve of such methods, coming from a lowly background himself, turned a blind eye for the sake of his newly offered rank. He did as he was commanded, carrying out his lord’s will so that he might make himself wealthy and feared in the streets. The common men might snicker behind his back, but in the street they would bow to him and doff their hats. He rode out with Dior to collect his money and take his prisoners. Darrick’s strength kept the villagers who might protest at bay.
Then one day, Darrick and Dior rode through a heavy forest, dark with the draping of the long-hanging trees. Suddenly, a hunting horn was heard cutting through the air, and from out of the trees there sprang a band of outlaws, their bows drawn menacingly. They cut free the bags of gold wrongly taken from the peasants, for these brigands were the champions of the people, and as such a terror to the highborn men of greed.
One of the outlaws aimed their bow at Dior. “My own kinsman was locked within thy dungeon, and there left to his death,” the man growled. “For that, thou should’st die.”
“By the cross which thou dost wear, thou shalt do me no harm!” the merchant pleaded, pointing to the string of prayer beads hanging from the man’s belt.
Reluctantly, the outlaws retreated into their forest domain, taking the bags of gold and merchant’s costly jeweled rings and fine-linked chain with them.
Darrick was disgusted by this show of weakness in the face of common bandits, and demanded, “Why make thee appeal to a beaded string? Art thou not the most powerful in the land, for thee to be so easily put to panic?”
“Because these are the devil’s men,” he explained breathlessly, “rogues and robbers all!”
“Then you fear his lordship the devil?”
“As does any man with a feeling heart!”
“Then I leave you to the devil’s men,” Darrick snickered. “I shall go and serve their master, since he is clearly more powerful than thee, that even his men might make thee quiver!”
And so then and there, Darrick rode out of the forest and did not stop riding until he crossed through many towns, asking everyone he saw the best way to the devil. Each time he was directed farther along the road, to the high mountains, jagged against the skyline. The light there bore an unhealthy yellowish tinge, and the clouds appeared like puffs of smoke. The nearer he came to those dreadful mountains, the closer he drew his cloak about his face, to shield himself from the fumes bubbling up within the molten crevices.
As he ascended the heights, he came upon a herd of mountain goats, and asked them where the prince of the demons dwelt.
“If thou wouldst find him, thou must go to the cave in the center of the world,” they bleated to him. “Go hence, along the cliff side, and there you will find the opening to the underworld.”
And so he did as he was bidden, descending down the depths by the stairs that were so hot, they nearly burned through the soles of his boots. Yet the farther down he went, the colder it became, and he pulled his scarlet cloak tighter around him. Soon the stairs seemed slick with ice, and his breath came out of his mouth like an evil gray fog.
Finally, at the bottom of the seemingly eternal flight, he came to a spectacle that transfixed him. Before him were many sculptures of ice, kneeling beings in front of a towering ice throne and the monarch sitting upon it. He also seemed made of ice. But then Darrick saw that the figure’s face was flushed with some strange reality Darrick had never seen before. It was alive, and yet not alive, for all his senses were upon himself, frozen hard. And yet his crystal-cold eyes met Darrick’s and beckoned him forward. And so it was that he knew both the fear and the thrill that comes with an evil so great that nothing around it can be moved.
Darrick served the devil for many years. The rebel prince, he found, could take on many forms and faces, sallying out into the world in search of those to subjugate and turn to ice, which seemed to be his insatiable desire. Oftentimes they would journey down from the mountains together, and the villages would tremble beneath the power of their presence.
“I am the prince of mischief,” the devil would say, “and I come to turn all the world upside down. Join in my sport, you who would know pleasure, and leave pain. Join in my sport, you who would never die, for my ice is of the beginning, and of the end. Come, rest in me!”
But one thing Darrick noticed, and that was the demon’s aversion to traveling through any wooded areas. But Darrick, one day, prevailed upon his master with the insistence that he knew a shortcut through a forest, and that assuredly nothing would dare to touch the prince of all darkness. This he did in order to test the strength of his icy heart.
But the devil seemed to grow more and more uneasy, the farther they went into the forest.
“What causes thee fear, my lord?” Darrick demanded.
“I can hear the trees breathing,” he answered lowly.
“And how does that cause thee any harm?” his companion challenged.
“It is not they, but that which they make, at the cost of themselves,” the devil stated. “It is that which they fashion with their lives.”
“And what have they fashioned?”
“It is that which I dare not to utter.”
“Then thou art but a cowardly churl!” Darrick repudiated him. “Far I will go from thee, and seek out that of which you will not speak!”
And with that, he hurriedly parted ways with the prince of darkness.
He rode on until he came to a mother sitting outside her humble dwelling, rocking her swaddled babe in a wooden cradle. The lullaby she sang was so soothing that he wished he might stay a while to listen to it. But he did not stop at the cradle.
He rode on until he came to a weaver outside his simple shop, working a rainbow of threads through his wooden loom. The colors were so vibrant that he wished he might stay a while to gaze on them. But he did not stop at the loom.
He rode on until he came upon a minstrel sitting beneath a tree, playing a song of bold knights and fierce dragons upon his wooden harp. The story was so compelling that he wished he might stay a while to hear it. But he did not stop at the harp.
He rode on until he came upon a group of fair maidens dancing around a wooden maypole, ushering in the spring. He was so enchanted by their movements that he wished he might stay to watch them. But he did not stop at the maypole.
He came upon a wedding, and two lovers exchanging carved wooden spoons to plight their troth. The scene was so full of tenderness that he wished he might stay to observe the ceremony. But he did not stop at the spoons.
He rode on until he came to a carpenter hewing out the heart of a wooden coffin to place a man newly dead, his corpse lying alongside on the ground, stiff and naked, with coins over his eyes. The sight was so dreadful that he felt affixed to it until he shivered. And yet he did not stop at the coffin.
At last, Darrick reached a clearing in the woods where an old hermit stood in the pool of a waterfall, fingering wooden beads similar to those carried by the outlaw, in his bony fingers. Although his face was gaunt, his eyes shone through with a youthfulness that seemed to suspend time itself and the toll it had taken on his frail frame.
“I have seen that before,” Darrick remarked, pointing to the wooden cross at the end of the beads. “Men faced with death appeal to it as a sign that saves.”
“It is a sign that cleaves many hearts,” the hermit replied, “and strips men naked of all that is passing.”
“Could it strip a man of his gold?”
“And scatter the proud in the conceit of their souls.”
“Could it cause the prince of darkness woe?”
“The gates of hell cannot prevail against it.”
“What noble house does bear such power, that I might serve it?”
The hermit smiled. “Such a prince cannot be found. He must find thee.”
“Hurry, old man, for the hour grows late, and my curiosity is piqued. I have no time for riddles. Where does this most powerful prince dwell?”
“Follow thee the salmon downriver,” he instructed Darrick. “They will be thy guide.”
“How far am I to follow?” Darrick demanded.
“Follow to the place where they will spawn and die. Thy fate is bound to theirs.”
Puzzled, but not deterred, Darrick set off on foot towards the river and sought out the shadows of the fish moving beneath the current. For many suns and moons he followed them, and become accustomed to the song of the river, and the cooling spray upon his face. For many nights, he lay outstretched beneath the stars, observing their rise and fall.
Then one day, as he neared a ford in the river, he spied a little boy in tattered rags standing upon the bank, his face streaked with mud and his eyes full of tears. He very nearly passed him by, as he passed by many common sights and sounds; he had more important things to do, after all. But something about this child gave him pause.
“Why art thou crying, lad?” Darrick asked.
“My lady mother waits for me beyond the woods on yonder bank,” he sobbed. “I have no boat to cross over to her, and the waters run too fast and deep for me to cross alone.” The little boy looked up to him. “Sir, wilt thou not carry me across? For thou art strong, and thou might bear me up upon thy shoulders.”
“Nay, lad, for I must journey on along the river,” he refused.
“Why is that?”
“I am bound to meet a prince, the most powerful prince in all the universe,” Darrick replied.
“But sir, have pity on me,” the child begged. “My mother will have sought after me, sorrowing…”
“I have tarried for no one upon this quest,” he retorted. “Why is it that I should tarry for the likes of thee?”
The little child opened the tiny cloth bundle he was carrying, and inside there was a cross bun. “I will share this bread with thee if thou wilt carry me across the water.”
He sighed at the simplicity of the child, but ultimately found his heart moved to pity by his plight. And so Darrick stripped off his fine shirt and bid the child to climb up onto his shoulders, with his arms wrapped around his neck. The river current flowed strong, but the blacksmith’s son was stronger. Still, he marveled at how heavy the small child became as he went farther into the river. The weight seemed to be crushing him within, breaking him down into a powder.
“Why art thou so very heavy, little one?” Darrick panted.
The salmon that swam around his legs spoke to him in their ancient tongue, “Thou bear upon thy shoulders the weight of the universe.”
And the song birds, in flight above, chirped, “Thou carries all the world, the heavens and the earth, all above as below, all without as within…thou carries it all…”
But Darrick did not understand the meaning of their words nor of the weight paining his shoulders. When he finally crossed over to the other side and set the child down on dry soil, the little boy pulled apart a piece of his bread, and made to give it to Darrick.
“No, no, little one,” he sighed, feeling pity on how famished the child looked. “Keep it for thyself and thy mother.”
“But thou has need of it,” said the boy. “And I may give it to whomever hungers.”
Reluctantly, Darrick took the morsel offered to him and placed it in his mouth.
But as it melted on his tongue, his vision began to wobble, and so did his legs. Indeed, it was as if some protective layer had been stripped from his eyes, and the light penetrated them all the more intensely.
He collapsed on his knees, trying to shield his eyes from the brilliance, and then he thought he saw the child before him shift his shape, child no more, but grown into a stag, white like the stars that penetrate the great black board of the night.
And his antlers were long, and fast-growing, twisting, curling, expanding, outward and inward…and they crossed.
Yes, they formed a cross.
And then the vision vanished.
As Darrick recovered from what he had seen, a troop of royal cavalry approached from behind him, their scarlet pennants snapping in the breeze and their swords drawn. They turned to him and demanded, “Didst thou aid that child? For he is under a death sentence, for taking the king’s bread! For this, it is fitting that he should die.”
Darrick’s strong heart was pained by what he heard. “But he is such a little child,” he protested, “and half-starved, whereas your king might afford all sorts of fineries. Surely mercy might be extended!”
“The king maintains his right,” the officer snarled, “and the price is death upon any peasant who dares to take food from the royal table. His death be on our head. Now, let us pass!”
But Darrick remained in his path, his heart pounding in a way he had never felt before. “Do not hunt the child, I beg of thee…”
“There is blood upon his head,” the officer repeated. “Blood must be shed.”
Darrick was silent for a long moment and then, shocking himself as his own words rang in his ears, he said, “Then let it be my blood, instead. The debt will have been paid, and the child would be free.”
And so the strong man was seized right then and there, stripped of all he wore, and spread out against a tree. Then spikes were driven through his hands and his feet. Naked beneath the sun, he saw at a distance the pool where the salmons swim to spawn, and then to die. And he thought upon all the wood that he had seen, all shaping the course of life and death, and he thought he heard the voice of the trees carried on the wind:
“See now the weight we bear? See now the devil’s woe? For we have borne the breath of life to the world in our standing, or torn it from the lungs that billowed at the forge of the universe. Oh, we are the wisdom of life, death, and rebirth, by all the things we make and unmake, and now you know it…oh, now you know it too well…”
Then he saw before him a sight that pierced his eyes, for out from under canopy of trees, there was a light breaking through the bones of him, and he thought it was the most powerful he had ever seen. And there was a lady in the light, and she was a woman of the streets, with poor and huddled wretchedness that clings to those passed by on the other side. And by all the powers that ruled and waned, she was a Queen.
And in her arms there was a child, the selfsame child he had carried, with tattered clothes and dirty face, and his hair aglow with the light.
“Thou crossed me over to the other side,” Darrick heard him say, though his mouth did not move. “Now cross thou over to me.”
And then the officer’s blade drove through his strong chest, puncturing his strong heart, and his life’s blood poured out onto the forest floor, turning it from emerald to scarlet. Then the instrument of death was withdrawn, and with it his last breath. And the soldiers rode away.
The seasons passed, and decay came, with the leaves falling, and the flesh falling, and the crows flying, and feasting. And the bones were all that remained. And they were powerless, stripped, and white as the snows falling.
And then, in the spring of the year, there came a hermit to that spot, his clothes soaked by the waters of the river, and he found those bones stretched upon the tree. And he took them down, and wrapped them in the rough wool of a monk’s habit, and began to say a Mass over them. And from out of the forest the animals and outlaws came to hear the hermit’s prayers. When he was finished, the hermit sent the birds out to bid the carpenter to bring along a fresh-hewn coffin made of the native wood.
“Thou shalt be called Christopher,” the hermit christened him, when the coffin was lowered into the ground, “for in truth, thou hast taken unto thyself and borne the body of the Christ.”