literature

The Scourge of God

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A severe disease erupted in the village, and began reaping from home to home.

Happiness died, gloom embraced the haggard people. It was as if evil spirits passed over.

"Lord, what wrong we did, Lord!"

And the church bell spread its metallic echo every morning under the fraught sun, inviting young and old alike to pray. The priest laboriously served liturgy after liturgy. The small chapel was open day and night and people – tortured, repented, frightened, were coming twice and thrice a day to light candles, pray, and offer their dearest. Several times they anointed water, consecrated chrism, plated Mother Mary's icon in silver, endowed St John the Healer in gifts, but all in vain. The disease was becoming fiercer and fiercer, more and more merciless.

The teacher thought for a long time, and one day he announced that the deathly disease was coming from the priest's water hole.

On the square, near the priest's house, there was an old well whose waters were indeed tastier than the water from the village fountain. However, it didn't have a bucket and people drew from its slack water with whatever dishes they could, the draff water from which was going back into the well. The teacher was right but he was too young and people didn't want to believe him, continuing to spread the morbid disease. The obese priest, superstitious like everyone else, further helped their beliefs.

"This is the scourge of God! A divine retribution!"

And he anointed his well's waters, despite the teacher.

And the disease grew stronger. It would make one dizzy, delirious, apathetic – he would lie in bed for weeks, neither dead nor alive. Drying, withering, fading away. It took away the pretty Neda, Aglika, killed Irmena – a young girl, just married the previous day. They buried Magda and Yagodin together – two lovers, both so young, so strong, the pride of the village.

Even hearts of stone were struck in sorrow.

A terrible, dark, hollow feeling descended down. Despair and inconsolable sorrow embraced the hearts, grief shadowed the kind peasants' faces. In this time of harvest, time of labour, sweat, and effort – whether sick or not, people had to work on the fields.

The bright village days blackened, the quiet and peaceful nights were disturbed. In evening everything would go back, lull, subside, and from all four ends of the village would echo desperate voices and shrieks of orphaned mothers and widowed brides, floating dolefully and endlessly until morning.

Yet another disaster struck. A drought emerged and like a devastating fire burned everything, scorching fields and crops, parching springs and wells. A terrible three month torridity spread everywhere and remained to smother, wither, kindle. Three whole months without even a trace of a single cloud. The sun, day after day, in spite of everything was burning hotter and hotter, scorching more and more. Above the seared fields and crops, the black remnants and the parched dirt trembled a horrible haze. It was as if the air itself was burning and the chests were drawing it from some infernal white hot pipes. Lungs were dried. Throats were desperate for water. Arid lips were crackling to blood.

The blistering nature became pale and mournful. From the rocks and the crags above the village and the red friable screes over them was streaming a heavy and fiery whiff, as if from molten metal. Blackness was coming from the forests and swelter replaced their gentle coolness. Brooks and creeks, fountains and wells, swamps and bogs, burns and streams – everything dried out. Cattle was dying for water, the merry birds disappeared. With effort, with open beaks, thirsty ravens flew by and their forlorn croaking was breaking the peasant's heart. Storks were worriedly meandering the parched sloughs. Singing larks, suffocated from the fearsome heat, were falling dead, with tongues out, and mouths full with fresh red blood, boiled out from their burst tiny hearts.

The drought, like an invisible devilish bird was purging every little cloud from the sky and was becoming more and more horrible and merciless. With terrible dole reapers were coming home exhausted and arid: from the scorched wheatears on the endless fields was pouring like rain dead and breadless grain. No echo from a single harvest song was audible in the broad like a golden sea field. Silent were the reapers throughout the day. Silently they bowed down and stood up. Silently, as if they were collecting corpses from the battlefield, they piled the empty crops and blood was dripping from their hearts. The field was dead quiet. Only from some lonely forested place one could hear the continuous wail of a hapless widow or orphaned mother and its bitter echo, as if reflected from the sky dome, was falling upon one's heart like an ice cold blade.

Gloom and doom reigned everywhere, as if the Black Plague was raging or the Apocalypse was coming.

Every holiday the priest called upon all the villagers, young and old, to pray together. Every day children carried the church's gonfalons on the fields and meadows. All in vain. God was deaf for the fervent prayers for a drop of rain, health, and hope.

One need only see the mournful marching of those people for his heart to groan in sorrow. Lined up in a long, sombre procession, like a huge caterpillar on the road, the villagers – tormented, barefoot, bareheaded, without saying a word, walked after the white gonfalons. Grief and repentance could be seen on every face. Hot sweat dripped down their furrowed foreheads. Their bare feet dug the scorching dirt and heaved clouds of ashen dust that covered them all and left black lines on the damp faces. The infernal sun was searing above their bare heads. The heavy scent of incense and wax filled the air. They wandered the village four hours, crossed the fields, then stopped, surrounded the priest, and chanted long prayers. And under this hellish sky, amidst this burned field, the cries of these half-killed from grief and hopelessness human creatures are barely audible.

"God, have mercy on us!"

But all in vain! The steel echo from the frogs' croaking, which trembled night after night above the blazing field and the unfortunate village, predicted that the drought's end wasn't drawing near.

And the sickness began killing more and more often.

No help, no hope. Poor people fell into despair. The priest, however, pleased with the earnings from the services and anointments, and with the victory over the teacher, was leisurely sitting in the pub with a glass in his hand and was mumbling:

"People, this punishment is little for you! The plague, the plague you deserve! You've sunk in sins, sold your souls to the devil, forgot your prayers, became drunkards, and angered the Lord. Now that's what you get! I told you to renew the village chapel – you didn't want to. Suffer now!"

And people bowed their heads submissively, embittered and ashamed. Only the young ones resented his words and spoke openly against him:

"Sinners, eh? Drunkards? Why doesn't his Holiness look at himself?"

And the teacher kept insisting that the nest of the horrible disease is the priest's water hole and that it should be immediately desolated.

"This is our only chance!", he said.

"Hooo!", the fat priest yelled at him, "Little boy, pouring mind into old and white-headed people! Doesn't want prayer, eh? Unbeliever! Pagan! "The disease is in the water hole"! Because of people like you, God punishes us! Don't touch my well, or your hands will dry out! Those who want redemption, there's the church – go and pray!"

The teacher couldn't stand that any longer. One day he gathered the young men with him and sealed the well with heavy oak lids in front of everyone. The entire village gathered at the square. The mayor, the foreman, the old men – all of them protested against the teacher, but nothing could stop him. The priest raised his axe to destroy the lids, but the strong hand of the teacher stopped him.

"Be sensible, your Holiness!"

"Sensible? Get out of here, you little boys, stop lying to the world, or the devil will take you!", the Holiness raged. His eyes were burning, his beard was trembling in wrath.

Then the wild Mladen, the fiancé of Neranza, who was lying ill, and brother of the dead Aglika, stepped up against him, and shouted with terrible force:

"Throw the axe away, or I'll crush you!"

"You are a fool, Mladen! You haven't come to church once, and now…" the priest stuttered, green with rage.

"To hell with your prayers! They killed Aglika and made Neranza sick! Go away or I'll smash your head!" Mladen shouted and his eyes went dim, and his fingers clutched into iron fists. He pulled out a wooden spike from the fence nearby and stood near the well.

"Come, if you dare!"

His old father, trembling in anger, raised his hand towards him and told him:

"Don't step in my home ever again, did you hear me!"

"Back off, father, I will spare no one!", Mladen screamed maddened. "If we had done this before, now Aglika would have been alive and Neranza would have been healthy!"

Two tears went down his dark-skinned, young face.

The old men stood there for a while, watching and rambling, then they went off.

"The youngsters have become unbearable! I don't know how they'll end up", Mladen's father told them. "Did you see my son? He would beat me for nothing."

Since then, the young men took turns in guarding the well day and night. For four weeks, anyone passing by would see the heroic figure of a man with a huge club in his hand, young, vigilant, watching like a soldier on his post.

But the drought was still mercilessly searing, and the steel croaking of the frogs was still ominously echoing over night after night, predicting that the end wasn't near.

And a silent distrust was born between old and young. A spiteful murmuring spread from the butter souls and the desperate hearts, who began to drown their sorrow with wine and whiskey. The priest, tired and disappointed, abandoned services and anointments. No one was permitted into the chapel but women and old men. And the pubs were full with depressed and drunk people. And there, amongst the terrible noise, could be heard sinful words.

"God has no mercy – don't pray to him! Let's do like frogs when their swamp dries out – let's curse, and die."
A very old short story by Elin Pelin.
Published:
© 2011 - 2021 MayaTheHobbit
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