Times of Plenty
by Ross Smeltzer
The soil that had long nourished the village of Fülledorf had turned grey and hard. Fields that had harbored rows of wheat were now home only to yellow grasses that scattered in weak breezes. The villagers, accustomed to times of plenty, tore at the capricious land. They gauged and mined, relentless and unceasing.
They sought to uncover some hidden strata of unpolluted soil, some sliver of earth where rot did not reign and where green substances still retained their ancestral purchase. But the hands that grasped the picks and shovels only grew weaker and more desperate.
The villagers were racked by pains thought extinct, pains known only to distant ancestors. They sought explanations with the same avidity they sought healthy earth. The priests and scholars offered them.
The villagers were soon prosperous only in explanations, many of which attributed their hunger to a catalogue of moral failings. They repented for the sins attributed to them with the ardor of practiced flagellants.
But penance filled no stomachs; contrition brought no relief. The villagers soon stopped praying for food. Instead, they prayed they could be inured to the pain occasioned by its absence. These new prayers, like the ones that preceded them, were met with indifference.
Hunger was all the villagers knew. They forgot there had been a time when they had eaten ripe fruit and golden bread, and when their beasts had furnished them with milk and meat.
And then a stranger came to Fülledorf. He pushed aside the guards standing watch over the wooden palisade, men so weak they could hardly clutch their ornamental halberds.
He wore a long robe. It might have been purple once, but it had been despoiled by time and travail. Ragged, it ran through the dirt in the streets, collecting mud and straw in its hem until it became indistinguishable from the muck. He seemed not to mind.
He wore a strange mask: the skull of a dead ox. Brown and coated in mud and patches of dry lichen, it concealed his face and lent him a strange, mystical air. He had likely found it in a hidden cemetery, a place where a farmer had butchered sickly cattle and inhumed them in shallow graves. The village priests marveled at the visitor’s ingenuity.
A thin, silvery trail succeeded the stranger wherever he went. It was thought to be a kind of magical effusion, a symptom of eldritch dabbling.
A crowd gathered around the curious stranger. He spoke sparingly and with a rasp, but his manner invested him with authority. Only the aristocrats disdained the stranger. Their habitual contempt for the fascinations of the multitude dispelled his intrigue.
As starving and sickly folk thronged about the stranger, orbiting him as lesser bodies do a sun, the nobles and highborn ladies persisted in their intrigues and practiced indolence. The cavernous storerooms beneath their towers were well-provisioned. The desperation that afflicted the villagers was alien to them; they had no need for hope and succor.
The stranger, who had moved languidly through the village, halted when he arrived at its center. There, before a fountain with a marble bowl that had been surrendered to green algae, he spoke to the assembled multitude.
He said he had watched the village and knew its troubles. He said he could invigorate the desolate land by means of rituals and potions. With a jerky motion, his gauntleted hand motioned to the vials and little bottles that hung around his neck. Some contained golden liquids that looked like melted amber. He said the trees and plants required only his animation to bear nourishing fruit once again. Children and animals need not go hungry, he said.
The visitor asked only for shelter, a home near the village’s center. If he were ensconced in the town, he would proffer the people the foodstuffs long denied them by the fickle earth.
Without hesitation, the villagers acquiesced. They longed to taste fruit with that sweetness faintly recollected; they longed to chew pink meat shorn and hacked from fattened beasts. They gave the stranger an abandoned tavern in the village center: a place of rotted timbers and crumbling walls. He said it suited him.
The nobles were untroubled by this occurrence. They reasoned that contented servants would be more tractable than hungry ones.
The stranger did as advertised. He would, once daily, exit his tumbled-down shelter in the village square, push aside the village gate and venture into the lands beyond. He requested no aid and, in fact, insisted that the villagers abandon cultivation altogether. In that penetrating wheeze of his — a sound that stabbed the ear — he dissuaded the villagers from seeking instruction or enlightenment. Their deliverance was at hand, he said. His methods need neither be explained nor interrogated. The villagers, he said, were now free to become craftsmen and traders and scholars and priests. The plows of their parents had been made obsolete at his coming, he said.
Tools grew rusty and were forgotten.
At dawn each day, the stranger left the village. He would return late in the afternoon, wheeling a green cart through the streets. The cart’s heavy wheel made a thudding sound as it struck new stone cobbles.
The stranger did not simply coax profusion from the covetous ground. His green cart was laden with prepared meats and sweets; the latter glistened from all of the sweet glazes that covered their skins. Foodstuffs unimagined by the villagers were soon assimilated into their diets.
Sometimes the stranger’s overburdened cart bore quarrelsome crabs with blue armor or persimmons with orange membranes or cakes bedecked with fruits and nuts with names unknown to the villagers. Sometimes the green cart bore fruits and vegetables of unexampled dimensions. The corn proffered by the stranger was twice as large as that which had sufficed for the villagers in earlier times.
A few saw witchery in the stranger’s works; they were wistful and longed for old times. They had forgotten the leanness so recently subdued.
The stranger would distribute his wares in the village square, beside the fountain that now gushed clear water into the air. The algae had gone, banished by a people whose aesthetic sensibilities had been recently enkindled. No family went without bread and meat. There was always a surfeit of food.
Victuals tumbled from the stranger’s green cart into the street below and, there, became the rations of rats, cats and dogs. The rats, it was said, developed a taste for sweets; they ballooned on cakes and bread crusts. They would have become easy quarry for the village cats had not those predators become similarly swollen and ponderous.
The villagers grew fond of the food prepared and presented by the stranger. Each night, the families of Fülledorf gorged on savory meats and sweet pies. And they grew fond, too, of lives spent outside of the fields and forests.
The aristocrats were immune to the stranger’s many attractions. They persisted in their accustomed aloofness. Their stores, though reduced somewhat, were replenished by traders from afar. They had no need for the tithes of grain and meat the village had once provided.
Moreover, they insisted the stranger’s offerings did not compare to the equivalents prepared in their kitchens by their battalions of practiced cooks. The stranger’s food, they said, was too savory and too sweet; suitable perhaps for awakened palettes but noxious to any practiced tongue.
The villagers paid the high lords and ladies no heed; the novelty of daily cakes was not one to be resisted or questioned.
This state of affairs was maintained for some time. The villagers, who had once toiled for their food, now became artisans and craftsmen and clerks. A fortunate few became wealthy burghers, masters of men who were recognizable by their many trinkets and their unconcealed self-regard. Where once the villagers had been lean, they were now fleshy: grown plump and pink on the munificence of the purple-robed stranger. The new burghers seemed most susceptible to this alteration.
The aristocrats observed these change in their former domestics with an indifference subtly leavened by repugnance.
Unusual things began to happen, however. Children were born sickly, afflicted by unprecedented conditions or by ones thought dead. The churchyards and charnel houses were soon brimming with corpses. Burial did not afford them quiet. Their interment places were found pitted and sunk, seemingly riven by burrowing things. Most blamed the rats: creatures now spoiled and impertinent.
The villagers wept to discover their children nourished vermin. A few observed that the village rats had become scarce before these sad times.
The villagers had little time to gratify their sorrows, for they began to fall ill. Their constitutions had seemingly slackened. The priests muttered strange words, and the scholars debated one another with vehemence, attempting to locate some explanation for these manifold misfortunes.
All the while, the stranger persisted in his routine. The green cart’s arrival was always met with crowds and applause. Sadness and infirmity did not suspend the villagers’ need for sustenance or their hunger for dainty sweets.
Villagers began to go missing. Those who had been most altered by the advent of abundance disappeared first. The village cats and dogs, too, vanished. Scholars and burghers met to debate these occurrences; words were plentiful but resolutions were scarce. Every morning, the villagers of Fülledorf found more of their companions had gone.
Many said that some celestial sentence was being meted out to the village. They pointed to the queer but undeniable rumblings all could hear in the earth below.
The stranger, too, was transformed. His robe had once been shapeless: the lodgings of a small and frail being. Now, it was distended and strained. The stranger was ample, though none saw him eat. This change did not occasion comment. The stranger had, after all, brought the gift of surplus to the village. Was he not entitled to benefit from the abundance that had attended his coming?
The stranger left the village with less frequency and travelled now only in darkness. He had become sluggish. The remaining villagers listened to him shuffle through the streets as they lay fearful in their groaning beds.
The aristocrats eventually perceived these developments. Their servants had become sickly and inefficient. This had disquieted them somewhat. Then their servants had sloughed off and gone unreplenished. This disquieted them more.
In addition, their stores, once profuse, had grown alarmingly deficient. The vagabond merchants had not, it seemed, provided the aristocrats with so much as they had thought. Most of their nourishments had, to their surprise, come from the plots that once gridded the valley beneath their high towers: the plots that had been surrendered to wild grasses and flowers. They felt pangs once thought inconceivable.
Fülledorf grew silent; the din of commerce, which had been succeeded by the screams of daily anguish, had been muted — throttled. The silence of the place roused the aristocracy from its accustomed lassitude; famished dukes and marquises sent knights errant into the village below.
The village was abandoned: the dominion of weeds and black crows. The cracked, blasted cobblestone streets were slick with oily mud. The fountain was filled with choking algae.
The people of Fülledorf were extinct, though their possessions were untouched. Their storerooms were packed with food.
One of the knights entered a home in the village center: a place of cracked windows and drooping beams and lichen-covered cornices. It was the manse of the purple-robed stranger. There were mounds of bones scattered on the floor: bones of animals and humans, tangled and indistinguishable. The wooden floor that had once shielded delicate feet from moist soil was torn and splintered. Great holes had been bored into the floor: holes which led into wide, circuitous tunnels.
The knight saw a misshapen man huddled beside a cupboard. The man wore the stranger’s purple robe. The garment was in pieces: nothing but rags and tatters remained. It ceased to conceal the form within.
Beneath frayed shreds of plum and violet, the knight saw glistening milky skin that rolled and rippled: skin that was seemingly unrestricted by the dictates of bone. He gazed into the stranger’s mantle for an instant. There were no eyes to be found within the rotten mask. Beneath the thin fabric and the purloined skull was a canker grown fat and shrewd; a thing that ought to have threaded the cold soil now trod earth and felt sunlight meant for man alone.
In a final instant of lucidity, the knight saw the thing sink into the soil; saw it gnaw through strata of bone and wood and stone and descend into the obliging earth below.
* * *
I am returned to the place of my birth and beginning. Coiled, I feel soil and rot enshroud me. I feel comforted. I cannot remain here, though. I feel hunger again, a sensation unwelcome and temporarily placated. I must return to the sunlight, where food is abundant. I will never go hungry there, for those whose reverberations and echoes seep from above are plentiful. They will sate me, for one can reap them on their appetites. I was taught this long ago and this knowledge has sustained me.
I feel such hunger now in my lightless seclusion. Such hunger. I will banish it with meat, and I will grow. Always, I will grow.
Copyright © 2013 by Ross Smeltzer