december 29, 2004

The water in Church Bay

A couple of hundred years ago there was an uncommonly strict and powerful priest in J�sseh�rad in Värmland, who exerted all his strength to make the people of J�sseh�rad observant and pious. It was not enough that he tried to cure them of drunkenness and fighting, of smuggling from Norway and other wickedness -- many priests had tried that before him -- but he forbad them also to fear and worship the powers that are in the farms and the forests and the waters, and this was something that the other priests had been careful never to meddle with.

The priests before him must have thought that since it unarguably the case that there are trolls in the forest and kelpies in the river and elves in the farms, they could not forbid their flock to protect themselves from the malice of these creatures, whether by sacrificing to them or by drawing up agreements with them -- but the new priest would hear nothing of such sophistry. God, and God's word alone were all that a man should hold fast to; if he only did this, there was no need to believe that anything else existed which might bring him harm or destruction.

Although the new priest was a mighty preacher it was obvious from the beginning that all his speeches against the powers under earth would be quite wasted. Most of his audience grew frightened that he would rouse the spirits of the land against them and such an emnity grew up against him that he had no success either will all the other things he struggled for. In the end it came about that everything he tried to work against was praised and admired, while God's cause suffered for every day he stayed in the parish.

Just at the time when he was most ground down by all his setbacks, he went out one afternoon to refresh himself with a walk. His house lay on the shore of a lake, and he followed his usual route, along the county road as far as the church and then back again. He looked often across the lake, which lay frozen and covered with snow, and thought of the trouble it cost the spring sun to dissolve the ice. It had not got far yet. He could even see that a couple of sledges were running out along the smooth worn way that ran out from the vicarage grounds and across the lake to the neighbouring parish.

But what did it matter to the sun that it took such a long time to melt the ice? She was, whatever happened, certain to manage the task. If only he could be as certain for his own part that his work would be crowned with success, he wouldn't worry about resistance, or suffering of any sort.

Right there, in the middle of the road, he clasped his hands together and turned his eyes to heaven. "Oh God, he said, if you see that my work will never bear fruit, give me a sign, and I will stop being a priest. I swear to you, that I am ready to be a day labourer, and earn my bread through the sweat of my brow, whenever you show me that I can't do this job, if that is your will."

Something strange happened then. No sooner had he spoken than he realised it had grown wonderfully silent around him. Or, more exactly, he felt that his ears had been shut to everything they normally heard, and that he had instead acquired a new sort of hearing. He could no longer hear his own footsteps, nor the squeaking of the sledge runnners, nor the hammer blows falling on the porch of the neighbouring farmstead. Instead of all that, he could hear the sounds and the voices which otherwise cannot reach human ears, and with his new powers he realised there was a voice calling from the under the lake. Three times it cried:

"The hour is come. Why tarries the man?
The hour is come. Why tarries the man?
The hour is come. Why tarries the man?"

The muffled voice tolled not from the ice that covered the lake, but from the abyss beneath. It was like the ghastly howling of starved wolves and came rolling wild and terrible under the ice as if a great bloodthirsty beast stood down there and howled for its prey.

As soon as the third cry had died away the listener felt as if a door had closed in his head, and he heard nothing more than the normal, daily sounds around him. The wind whistled gently in the alder bushes along the shore, the snow crunched underfoot, and a quiet bell came from a wagon just passing.

Posted by andrewb at december 29, 2004 11:39 FM