So Saint Inanis knelt and kissed
his ring as one would do
and said to him, ‘Your Holiness,
what can I do for you?’
‘The Turks are at the city gates;
get up now, whereupon
you’ll leave and bring this papal bull
at once to Prester John.’
‘To Prester John?’ the saint exclaimed.
‘I’d love to, but what irks
me is the countries I would cross
are full of vicious Turks.’
‘You’ll go with Brother Seon,’ the pope
said with unyielding voice,
‘if you succeed, you’ll be allowed
to keep your altar boys.’
The saint in the basilica
told Seon that he should say
a pray’r; under his watchful eye
the young man knelt to pray,
‘I thank thee for thy providence,
thy guidance and thy love,
but most that no one found me out,
oh empty space above!
‘If anyone suspected me
of knowing what you are,
they’d tear my tongue out with hot irons
or smash it with a bar.
‘They’d tear my mouth and lips to shreds,
revelling in my gore,
and burn me slowly on a pyre
like all the sanes before.
‘Let men of reason rise one day
religion to debunk,
and take my parents in thy care
for making me a monk.
‘Amen!’ - The last word said out loud,
he rose, and with the pale
saint he approached the fishing port
where soon their ship set sail.
‘For Alexandria,’ they told
the captain who began
to argue, ‘Hopeless! Egypt’s ports
are full of Mussulmen.’
‘Just leave us somewhere at the coast,
and we will make our way
rowing a dingy to the shore
before the light of day.’
But after their first night at sea
they woke up robbed and tied.
‘I’ll put you on the dingy now,’
the captain clarified.
‘I think a genuine bishop’s ring
should fetch a handsome price;
I’ll keep your money and shall leave
you both to God’s device.’
While Saint Inanis prayed to God,
Seon did not fail to see
tight lines he used to cut his ropes,
and soon his hands were free.
He took the captain by surprise
and tied him down before
he brought him to his cabin; then
he left and locked the door.
‘But we still need him,’ said the saint.
‘How will we reach that place?’
The abbot put his mind at ease,
‘I’ve sailed before, Your Grace.’
‘Is it not wondrous how the Lord
provides for those in need
who put their faith in Him alone?’ –
Seon, with a nod, agreed.
And after thirteen days at sea
they saw the lighthouse shine
into the Mediterranean night
by man’s supreme design.
God’s travellers then stopped the ship,
opened the captain’s door
but left him tied on board and rowed
the dingy to the shore.
‘We have to find a quiet spot
nearby where we can hide,’
said Seon, ‘and then we’ll have to find
a way to get inside.’
They went ashore amongst the reeds,
kept heads and voices low,
and after several miles they saw
a horse cart, going slow.
An olive trader and his son
approached the city gate,
and as the boy went for a leak,
the clerics lay in wait.
They climbed into the cart; the son,
returning from his way,
peeped in to snatch an olive, and
Inanis knelt to pray.
Seon gave the little boy a wink,
also a friendly smile
as if to say, ‘We mean no harm –
just leave us here awhile.’
Palefaced they waited, but the cart
moved on beneath the stars;
the two were sighing with relief
and hid behind the jars.
‘I prayed that God may grant to us
His miracles have never failed!’
the bishop said with glee.
Soon they had reached the city gates.
It seemed the soldiers knew
the trader well, and after one
quick glance they waved him through.
Seon kept an eye out for the Copts.
‘Saint Mark’s Cathedral – this
is where we should get off; here’s where
the Christian quarter is.’
They found a priest inside the church
and said, ‘Excuse us, we
are fellow Christians, sent to save
the Holy Land and See.
‘We’re on our way to Prester John
to end the faithless’ heist
and ask for reinforcements for
the knights of Jesus Christ.’
‘That is a daring enterprise,
and I am glad you sought
my help in this,’ the priest replied,
twisting his beard in thought.
‘I know a Bedouin family
who, for some gold coins, are
prepared to lead you out of Egypt
as far as Dongola.
‘From there you’ll go through Christian lands
and should not have to fear
the hatred of the Mussulmen,
as you are doing here.’
‘How do we know these people will
not cut our throats and take
our valuables?’ Inanis asked.
‘There is too much at stake.’
‘I’ve known them many years, and I
can say that they have earned
my trust - all travellers who had
planned to return returned.’
So soon the two were introduced
to Zayed’s family,
his wife, his daughter and two sons,
and settled on a fee.
Then, dressed as Bedouins, both of them
mounted their camels, much
to the amusement of the young
who had no qualms as such.
Their parents reprimanded them,
but Seon said, ‘We are new
to this - if I had watched myself,
I would be laughing, too.’
And so they set out for the vast
Sahara which has killed
more than she ever left alive
and yet holds tombs unfilled.
Reaching the first oasis took
more than a week; amid
Bahariya’s black hills and palms
they rested for a bit.
A few days afterwards the men
marvelled at large white rocks,
bizarrely shaped like sculptures of
ghosts from Pandora’s Box.
The waters of Farafra brought
relief from desert sand;
from here to Dakhla took nine days
which didn’t seem to end.
And Zayed told them right away
to break their camels’ backs
with fresh provisions for the road
before they would relax.
‘There’s no oasis till we come
to Dongola, and that
will be at least three weeks from now,
so bring what you can get!’
As they rode on, the elements
soon turned against the men,
for sandstorms stopped them on their long
trip, time and time again.
When the provisions had run out,
they still had half the way
in front of them; the clergymen
and Bedouins split to pray.
Before the party put up camp,
Seon said, ‘Let’s try our luck -
turn over all your saddlebags
to see if something’s stuck.’
Thus Saint Inanis found two figs,
gave one to Seon and ate;
Seon gave his to the starving girl
whom hunger had beset.
While they were sleeping, hooded knights
with torches in their hands
and crosses on their robes sneaked up
and stabbed them in the glands.
‘You murderous bastards,’ shouted Seon,
‘why would you do such thing?’. -
‘Not us! We’re Christians!’ screamed the saint
and showed the knights his ring.
‘The Lord has sent us to reclaim
this land for Him,’ they said.
‘Pray tell, what brings a bishop to
this desert – are you mad?’
‘We’re sent from Rome to get the help
of Prester John before
the Mussulmen take o’er the world
and win the Holy War.’
‘God bless you for your faith in Him
and your courageous task!’ -
Then the crusaders gave directions,
a blessing and a flask.
‘Our food is scarce, but we can spare
some water,’ they did brag,
then carved the Bedouins up and put
them in their saddlebag.
The bishop and the monk rode on.
Under a tree they spied
a sleeping man, a tempting piece
of judhaab by his side.
‘See how the Lord provides for us?’
the bishop took the meat.
‘It was provided for that man,’
said Seon and didn’t eat.
They finally reached Dongola.
‘There’s nothing more to fear:
since Nubia is a Christian country,
we should be safe from here.’
After a rest they travelled on,
wearing their old attire,
when in the distance they beheld
a massive funeral pyre.
Hundreds of children, men and women
were piled up to be burnt.
‘What happened here?’ the bishop asked,
and this is what he learned:
‘The Mussulmen did raid our village:
these people’s blood was spilled
to take revenge for our crusades
and a few guys we killed.’
The bishop held a service for
the dead and prayed in vain
that every Mussulman may be
converted or be slain.
And soon they reached the Hill of Gaps:
that’s where the fancy-free
Weird Sisters of the Clenched Heart
had built their nunnery.
They were received with open arms:
a banquet was prepared,
and the weird sisters heard the tale
of how their guests were spared.
But in the night the abbot woke
with an intense desire
for roasted ham, and soon he found
the nunnery on fire.
The bishop, kneeling by his bed
with folded hands, had long
passed out in prayer, so Seon did pray,
‘Myself, let me be strong!’
He dragged him singlehandedly
into the open space
and sprinkled, as the building burnt,
some water in his face.
Inanis rose, ‘The Lord be praised!
I saw the fire and then
prayed for our safety, and He has
answered my prayers again!’
It merely was a three days’ ride
from here, so they went on
to the illustrious kingdom of
Christ’s saviour, Prester John.
The wealth of Prester John surpassed
all they were ever told:
the poorest house was built of marble,
the streets were paved with gold.
And at the palace they saw statues
and ornaments so rich
that, if compared, the Vatican
would seem an orphanage.
A royal guard was greeting them
and kissed the bishop’s ring;
as clergymen, the two were brought
straight to the storied king.
‘You’re black?’ – The bishop was in shock.
The abbot had a ball,
‘What did Your Grace expect? This is
Africa, after all.’
‘The curse of Canaan,’ the king
moaned, ‘but I’ll be all right:
I know for sure on Judgment Day
Jesus will wash me white.
‘You must have travelled many moons,
far from the Holy See -
what business is so urgent that
you’ve ventured out to me?’
‘His Holiness sends you a bull
asking for help in need:
the Turks stand at the gates of Rome,
if they did not proceed.
‘Those pagans have invaded most
countries in Europe now;
they took Jerusalem itself
which God should not allow.’
‘I’ll send him half a million knights
to clear the Holy Land
and every other nation of
the Mussulmen, my friend!
‘But tell me, on your way you crossed
many a hostile state.
The perils must have been immense:
were you not tempting Fate?’
‘Praise be to God, he heard my pray’rs;
though dangers he did send,
he has delivered us from all
by his almighty hand!’