The Day of the Country Wake
On the site where pilgrims thronged that early morning, the only witch in the village was burnt at the stake as far as four generations ago. Nothing has remained of that incident, however, for the place is no different today than any of the sites at which hundreds of witches were burnt at the stake, nor from any of those where none were burnt. There are no stones or pieces of wood anywhere, no inscriptions or monuments to commemorate the fiery death of the inhabitants, yet visitors know about it and the locals remember it as if it happened only yesterday. Whoever passes by the willowed meadow on the morning of the anniversary may still catch the glow and notice the hazy flashes of the bloody scaffolding and the village judge in his robe as he dashes by to the chancery.
Seen from afar, the place is peaceful and congenial, the houses are tranquil, the highlanders that have moved down from the hills are honest, gentle and work hard from morning till dusk, while the lowlanders are obliging and ready to give a helping hand during a springtime storm, whenever there’s a rush to sow the crops, clear the fields, and during the harvest in autumn, whenever people gather for corn-husking, kneeling quietly in prayer, or clearing the fields. They are long accustomed to repairing damaged tools for the highlanders, who return their favors by offering home-made bread, ham and new wine that is sweet long into the winter.
This harmony between the highlanders and the lowlanders is spoilt by the occurrence in front of the parsonage, like the one we are going to witness right now. They happen regularly on Sundays and occasionally during the week. As soon as a person, either a local or a visitor, steps over the threshold, lameness overwhelms him and he distinctly feels that the air is filled with the atmosphere of the past centuries while the present day disappears from view as he feels the physical presence of the vapid atmosphere, the mouldy climate; the emptiness of the outward-leaning, heavy-laden houses rattles in his lungs; he feels the immediacy and closeness of the people while shaking hands with them; the odor of burnt meat strikes his nostrils, smoke rises from the timbers and fire-brand on the floor; a new stake grows from below, crumbling to pieces, spreading its eerie substance. It arises from the past in order to disintegrate the very next moment, then vanishes while the ring around it still emanates the odor of scorching and carbonization.
Even a visitor finds it hard to rid himself of this foul stench of decay and mouldiness, this ancient odor emanating from the enclosed ground; he may actually never quite free himself from it, for he sucks it into his lungs with every breath, accumulating and stacking it in his bronchi; his skin absorbs it through his clothes, it penetrates his blood, and later on, as he is travelling somewhere else, he can never quite escape the invisible climactic swirls; even though he shakes off the coal dust, soot, ashes, coal and fire-brands and takes a fresh breath of air for the first time after a long while, he is unable to scrub the smell off his skin, no matter how hard he persists in cleaning himself: the smell sticks to his whiskers and hair.
Even a short stay in this place throws his skin and hairs off balance; he gets the feeling that he himself is getting mouldy, and rot makes his hairs stand on end. Now that he has experienced the parish meeting-place laden with all things past, catchy, horrible and eerie, always concealed, invisible and unheard, destined for oblivion, sinking and plunging and, therefore, unseen, all the more present, eternally preserved and always new; only after he has felt the rot in the air above the site does he begin to notice mouldiness, putrefaction and rot outside as well. And there it is, transplanted, swelling, catching fire and sparkling outside the enclosure, finally making the visitor realize he is infested, and the affliction causes a swarming feeling under his skin, not unlike that in a caterpillar’s body.
However, it is one thing to be a mere visitor in the village and quite another to be a local. The two worlds come apart at this very scene of action, in its center on the gentle slope between the cemetery wall and the parsonage. The visitor notices nothing of this central place where the ancestors once built the stake, erected the gory scaffolding and put up a pillar, for the centre of the stake is now completely levelled out and overgrown so that it melts with the environment, and also because its surface is strewn with sand, packed down by a thousand feet.
It is different for the locals, for they cross over the site of the former stake as if they were stepping over a fresh, still smoldering burnt-out spot. They lift their feet unusually high, avoiding contact, stepping over obstacles, dodging, struggling to keep balance, many of them tripping over nothing, bumping against non-existing obstacles and falling headlong on the scene of the fire without a good reason, when something sizzles and acidly smokes. Also, it is amusing to see the clumsy creature flailing his limbs while getting up, kicking at hot embers that bite into his flesh.
Those standing closest, those who see the ungraceful unfortunate tripping over and tossing about in the live coals without being able to stand up or shake off the burning and painful smarting, do not flinch or even recoil, but merely turn their heads to look at the unusual sliding and shifting on the floor; they control the distressingly tell-tale ambiguous situation by withdrawing attention from the pathetic struggling creatures and focus it with peasant shrewdness on what is at hand, on the parsonage where bats hang under the jutting roof all too conspicuously; on the field behind the orchard where, luckily enough, the screaming flocks of crows and magpies have just tackled the seeds or, God forbid, have not tackled it; on the bush behind them where by God’s grace a mourning dove has been shrieking piercingly for some time and flies away at that very moment; or by pointing the finger up to the high church spire where a few jaybirds or owls move, or where nothing moves at all, the eye alone pretending that there is something there. The locals are thus making gapers and fools of uninformed visitors, giving them the wrong impression so that the visitors see the tumbling in the smoldering ashes they’d just heard as an illusion, the creeping on all fours across live coals as void and false, and the removal of smoldering bodies and plucking them out of the fire as a delusion or a dream.
Later on, petty tradesmen started putting up their stalls on this sandy territory which is so impregnated with history, yelling to attract buyers’ attention to their junk under the benevolent eye of the church. The market-place was to change the original character of the site, overriding the wailing and moaning, barring the sight of the blood, burning meat and bones. Yet they poured new wine into the old wine-skin without really pouring it at all.
The trees around the site never again recovered. No new leaves spouted or new boughs opened since the trees were licked by flames: the stake burned with fierce fire instigated by the wind, shifting its sizzling here and there. The locals themselves, even though not quite ignorant, didn’t have too much experience with stakes, and since up to that time they were incapable of burning as much as an earwig they were embarrassed and rather out of date. In short, they had the bitter feeling that they missed what others had already tried a while ago.
Before they staged their own event, of course, they’d assisted many a burning in the neighborhood: there had been many occasions for that, for the pope’s executioners had burned many millions of people at the stake and there was hardly a diocese or a parsonage that didn’t contribute such an obligatory service to the purity of religion, or perform all the necessary rituals for the good name of culture and civility.
Rather late, just in the nick of time, the locals, who had long been chasing a witch of their own, lived to see their glorious day, when they burnt her at a stake quickly, yet ceremoniously and with as much noise as they could muster: only a few years later it would have been impossible, for in the meantime civil authorities banned burning people, the rulers of this world thus protecting the human race and what was left of it from the divine authorities. It was in the nick of time as well that the locals managed to protect their reputation and evenly joined the mighty brotherhood of witch-burners and woman-scorchers, the crowd with which any average man feels powerful and protected.
An average man is never alone and never ever in danger, he never has doubts about anything, he is powerful and can come to no harm as long as he is a member of the group, for such average men are joined into a community by their herd instinct; in a herd it is enough to pat each other on the back in order to get the feeling of safety and comfort. Come to think of it, it is all the same whether one is first or last: if two stables burn over a large time span, one at the beginning and the other one at the end of it, is the atrocity of each one of them burning the same as if both burned at the same time? And what if the locals’ stake was the second stable and may have completed the historic episode that was ended by the unheard-of terrestrial interference with divine authority?
During the last moments, when all the indications pointed in the opposite direction and it was extremely difficult to send a living person to be burnt at a stake; during the recession when all the efforts of the locals to keep the stake were subject to such interference and when similar incidents were almost abolished, the tension was therefore considerable; that was also the time when mistakes were understandable and errors pardonable! The greater the merit of the locals, for their stake had burned fiercely in spite of the difficult circumstances and the decline, therefore any confusion was inconsequential. Better a stake built against reason than no stake at all!
Besides, the damage could not be anticipated. Who could have foreseen that the wind would not serve them: windy weather struck unexpectedly, so the ill effect of the sparking and the magnitude of the fire was not manifested until later, when the flames had completely bared Marjeta’s body, crackling and sizzling to void it of the liquid and eventually eat up the rot and the wrinkled, crackling, tangled mess, slurp up the withered remains of the cadaver so the blood judges could relish in the sight and, accompanied by the provost, depart by two carriages - for lack of space in the parsonage and the simplicity of countryside catering to a nearby provostship where a legal banquet was to be held with a lot of feasting, and where at other times righteous men resided during trials; in the third carriage there followed the local dignitaries led by the mayor, a weary, drained man with a face flushed from constantly hearing confession of the accused during her predicament as well as while she was tied to the pillar, all the way absolving her from the sins that she committed during her walk to the stake, and giving her benediction from a short distance. The poor man, in spite of the unbearable heat, and even much later on, when she could no longer hear him, kept his ear close so as not to miss any sigh from her so he would be able to give an authentic account of her last moments to the higher authorities after the execution; and most of all, he would be able to testify whether she recanted her confession or reversed it. However, she did not disclaim it but rather clung to it until the very end. Moreover, compassionate as he was, he wanted to comfort her, ease her pain, and while comforting her learn about her very enlightening last sins which would justify strict verdicts for the healthy subjects, and allow the sick to be either consigned to the stake or finally be given medical assistance in order to endure their agony during the days of trial.
Marjeta was a healthy woman who had not yet tasted any medicine, let alone seen the interior of a hospital. She approached the stake brimming over with vitality, youth and lavish vigour, therefore her confession brought neither cure nor comfort. The confessor could do little in his weariness but sprinkle her charred, decaying remains while the gapers kept praying and singing at a proper distance.
When fire completely consumed and destroyed Marjeta’s body and finally died, its impact was seen in the surroundings by near and by far; only afterwards was it clear that the stake that day was erected too close: it was impossible to restrain the fire to Marjeta’s body, for the wind kept blowing away firebrands and even splinters to the nearby roofs, so the beams of the houses around the stake cracked and burned; the corn-cobs hung up on the fences scorched; children sitting in the trees and swinging their legs retreated from the flying sparks into the treetops whence they could not descend; the clothes of those who sprinkled the trees and the wood caught fire and the whole village was nearly burned to the ground.
It was, of course, not by chance that the fire was merciful, sparing the village and eventually restraining itself to its own ashes and, above all, to the female body which burned to the skies truly splendidly and pleasing to God, a joy to look at while it thinned like a coin under a hammer, slowly disappearing and promptly gone. Even the provost and the vicar were heretofore always content both with the labor of their parishioners and with the assiduity with which they filled the two churches.
There was consequently no reason for God’s wrath or rancor, no cause to be dour or sulky, for God’s anger from the years past had taught them a lesson: during every epidemic or natural disaster they fetched convicts from the parish prison and tortured them in order to appease the fury of their passionate God, soothe the omnipotent acid, and they were fortunate to have felons among them and which could be used in times of need without having to seize the fit and the blameless. The plague, the most efficient weapon of their irate, sour God, after having eliminated half the citizens, caused the onset of a common, mass penance, of pilgrimages, conciliatory sacrifices, torture, strangulations and massacres. This is how the mass leaders themselves decimated what the plague left behind, thinning out the remaining half of the survivors, resuming the operation started by the plague by discarding one half of the strong and the fit.
At the threshold of a new era, basking in the light of its dawn, the locals overtook the hard times by sacrificing their gains in advance; they toasted to reconciliation, offered tributes and sacrifices, fearing an even greater rage of God’s immediate wrath: they crushed a girl by torturing her and set her on the scaffold, chastising her, protecting themselves before she could corrupt them. Everything went on like clockwork, except that the buildings in the vicinity were singed and the village almost burned to the ground. Furthermore, any budding stopped and the blossoming trees by the stake soon withered and wilted never again to bloom.
In spite of all that, those who put up the stake were convinced that they prepared a propitious and flawless execution; but to the lingerers who wanted to perform the sentence at the vicarage in any case, the execution was a ruinous venture. However, their demand was to be reckoned with, for there were no implements of torture or other contraptions that facilitate the search for truth and bolster faith in the village, so the accused had to be tortured in the well-equipped provost’s house where the technique was admittedly performed with much greater skill than it would be anywhere else, and so thoroughly that even the provost himself would willingly confess to being a sorcerer and a conjurer were he in Marjeta’s place, without paying heed to the fact that he was a mountain of a man who could not use every door. Late, though not too late, they subdued their witch, ravelled and tamed her before she did it unto them. They searched for her witch sign at the provost’s house, crushed her fingers in the press, hung her from the rings, and put her on the rack alive while they erected a stake for her in her home village.
Chained as she was, her mouth gagged by a cloth and her tongue tied, the crowd gathered around the stake heard no sound escaping her mouth. She burned quietly and with dignity, and people kept saying long after she was gone: "Yes, she was a witch and a sorceress, yet she was no whimperer." They could hear quite clearly the crackling of the burning wood and the monotonous exchange between the priests and the choir, while outside the church the silent mob distinctly heard the splitting of the ropes and cords until the body at the pillar collapsed and was finally consumed by the fire.
The priests of today no longer kill either in their righteous zeal or in God’s honor, raising their hands in prayer and murdering by signing the sentence of death; they no longer synchronize supplication and suffocation, for the temporal power deprived them of their most reliable tool and denied them their practices. The lords of torture did not give up their position voluntarily, out of their own enlightenment, out of a feeling of guilt or even regret: the witch trial of Apollonia as well as Marjeta’s at the fall of religious brutality ended with the death of the accused during torture, while two more witches that the court learned about from Apollonia’s testimony were released at the request of the government.
This is when the control of the people and nature was transferred overnight from the hands of God into the hands of man; all of a sudden what used to be true for half a millennium was no longer true, even though yesterday it was proclaimed by the unquestionable pope, commanded by his bondsmen and sycophants, executed in torment and complemented by burnings at the stake. The temporal power shattered the sting of the saintly authorities for their truth proved to be false.
The highlanders, who still cling to the times when they were either serfs or liberals, acquired a distinct awareness of historical changes, of the unsteadiness of eternal truths and their unreliability, of ambiguous and revocable truths; equipped with sensitive antennae, they feel the impact of ancient times in the present day. Every crackle of fire inflames them: whoever is bit by a snake will fear a coiled rope, and whoever avoids a coiled rope will not be bit by a snake. As soon as there is a mere suggestion of a fire or a match is struck round the corner, they look up from their work in earnest, their nostrils flailing, sniffing at smoke and soot.
Where are the good old times? Once, a single witch was to blame for any calamity. She was apprehended and burned at the stake, so life could go on as before: it rained and the sun was shining, the hardship was over and that was that. Today, the inhabitants of a whole village are to blame for any misfortune. The highlanders have united in order to appease God’s fury by penance, soften the retribution, to please and curry favor with Him and draw His sympathy and benevolence.