Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Young Man and the Dust Cloud: an original "folk tale"

Note: Inspired partly by my friend's still ongoing trip to Romania, partly by my recent reading of some of of the delightful stories in Gimpel the Fool: and other stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the below story is, if I have done my job right, nothing more than a simple folk tale- style story that will, at its best, make the reader think a bit, and at its worse, waste no more than a few minutes of the reader's time... I aim for "short and sweet."
-Abe Kurp

Once upon a time there was a village. It was a small happy village, at the foot of a tall mountain. Its few hundred inhabitants were not very educated or worldly, and people from other villages would often stop and laugh at them while passing through. But they were on the whole a jovial, kind-hearted people, content to run their own simple lives and help others with theirs when they could.

In this village there lived a boy of about seven years, who lived on a small farm on the outskirts with his mother and his three sisters. His father died when he was very young, so, although he was only seven he was already very accustomed to being the "man of the household." And a good man of the household he made, too! For, as kind and jovial as the villagers were in general, this small boy surpassed them all.

His kindness and virtue surpassed that of even the local holy man -- or so it was whispered when the villagers congregated. This man, who was not very good at delivering sermons and even worse at "practicing what he preaches," as they say, once heard some of these whispers. Inwardly angered at being surpassed in virtue by a small boy, the preacher denounced the child in his next sermon in an attempt to publicly humiliate him. The child took the derision with such calm good naturdness, however, that the villagers were shocked with their preacher, while the preacher for his part was so ashamed that he hid himself away for weeks, only emerging to deliver sermons, and never preached such a sermon again.

Yes, it was a quiet, happy place on the whole -- but all that was shattered on a hot summer midday. The young boy was still laboring in the field with his two oldest sisters when a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon. It was invaders from the north, who, despite being much richer and more powerful, had long coveted the simple happiness of this little town. Now, they were here to steal this happiness, to carry it away in sacks like so many coins or relics of gold. What else could they be after? The villagers had little else.

The dust cloud grew quickly and the villagers, unaccustomed to looking for invaders in those peaceful times, were caught unawares. When they did discover this cloud, the villagers tried to retreat to the mountains for protection. The boy and his sisters rushed back to their house to retrieve their mama and sister, then ran for the hills...The village lost many lives that day. The boy lost his entire family, and he himself escaped by a mere hair -- as if by chance, or Fate. Many other villagers vowed vengeance, sharpening their axes and forming alliances, but the boy just buried his mother and sisters and returned to his work.

Many years passed and the burnt fields of the village returned to, and even surpassed their former wealth and fullness. And no villager's farm was more prosperous than that of the boy, now really a young man. For Time did its work on men as well as the land, and the boy had grown into a tall, strapping young man. What is more, his kindness and good nature had never dimmed. And, though whispers of his tragic past still persisted, he was the most sought after man in town. All the old men wanted theirs daughters to marry him; and the daughters, for their part, were never opposed to the idea. The old women clucked over him during every town occasion, and the young men tried to befriend him in order to learn his secrets.

Our hero, for his part, seemed unaffected by the great stir he caused in his village. He listened intently to all marriage proposals, but never accepted one. And he politely conversed with the other young men when he had occasion to, but never accepted their invitations for hunting or swimming or cards. Even the preacher's repeated offers of a fishing trip, at his secret mountain stream -- a high honor in this simple town, though the spot was not as secret as the preacher supposed -- were politely but soundly rejected.

This preacher often sighed about the young man over dinner. "He is as kind as can be asked, with hardly a bad word to be said in his name. But still he has a distance about him. Still, he is all-consumed --I suspect, though he's never said so much -- by those...tragic deaths. You know, I am sure, the rumor that he watched his sisters and mother get cut down. And he would have gone too, would have flung himself in front of the sword, if some invisible force hadn't pulled him away." Here the preacher would always sigh in sad earnest. "I have spoken with many times, and prayed for him many times more; still, so he remains." The villagers, in their simplicity interpreted things more plainly: "he has a good soul but a broken heart."

Such were the state of things when, one day, a new cloud of dust appeared on the horizon. They came as quickly as before and in greater numbers too, but this time the villagers were ready. Up in arms and assembled at the town's border, the men took quick stock of themselves: all heavily armed, men young and old alike, the town beggars and the landowners, the sinners and the saints.

But at least one thing was missing: the young man. The village men were greatly surprised. Surely, with his natural leadership, for one, and his strong reason to fight, for two, the young man would be the perfect man to lead them into battle. Ah, but perhaps he was not aware, perhaps the cloud of dust had not reached his eye... A messenger, a young boy of no more than seven years, was dispatched to the young man's house.

The cloud was quickly approaching, however, and as the farm was far away on the outskirts and the little boy was slow in coming, the villagers chose one of the young man's rivals to lead them and then charged into battle. But they were badly outnumbered and, though they fought bravely and without reserve, were soon forced to retreat through the village to the mountains. The unluckiest among them were forced to a premature end.

Meanwhile, the horsemen from the north swept across the village, burning crops and pillaging homes. Soon a group of these horsemen reached the young man's farm. Aware of his history and reputation, they advanced slowly and cautiously towards the house at the middle of the farm.

When they were within fifty feet of the house, the front door opened and out walked the young man -- not up in arms, but in his normal work tunic, the dust and sweat of the field still encrusted to his skin. Almost immediately he began to speak. And the speech he made that day was remembered by all who were present, including the little messenger boy:

"So. Here you are. Years ago, when I was just a young lad, you struck my village. You burned our crops, our houses, you stole our tools and thus our livelihoods. Worst of all, you brutally murdered our families. You killed my family! My mother, my three sisters... And now you've come again. I foresaw your coming again, long ago."

"No." He cut short a horseman with the audacity to interrupt him. "I am not a soothsayer or a sorcerer. I have no magic. I do not really see the future. But I have common sense, and common sense tells me that a fox who has raided a nest of its eggs always returns. It tells me that a fox has a hunger that cannot be satisfied, that a fox is always in search of more...

Now here you are, not raging onto my farm like you did all those years ago, but on tip toes, like a group of common dinner guests. What, are you afraid of me? Perhaps you have heard stories... forget them. They are not true. Ever since you attacked. Ever since you... I have not been sharpening knives and axes, not practicing my archery. Ever since you came, I have tried to cope, to comprehend my feelings but, alas, I cannot.

In truth, I don't hate you. I don't love you either, though perhaps I should. My sisters do; my mother, too. They come and they speak to me sometimes, in the form of beautiful angels. They tell me not to hate you, not to kill you. 'Killing our killers won't bring us back,' they say. And I believe them. Even now they are here, saying 'Don't do it!" and I will listen. I do not know what will come of you all -- how you will die -- but I do know that it won't be by hand. You are safe, at least, from me. I will never disobey my mother and sisters, as long as I live and even afterwards."

His speech over, his audience stunned, the young man turned around abruptly and walked sternly back to his house. "Do as you wish," he shouted back to them as he shut the door of his house. And they did.

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