The Village 6
At the setting of the moon Wyclyffe, eager to ensure that the devil had not penetrated the village, put on his cape and walked towards the
entrance. As he approached the dark figures of the men who stood guard, he prayed that the night had been free of incident.
The men kissed his hand. Wyclyffe asked for news.
‘Nothing, father’ said one. Six of them were standing around a fire, leaning on pitchforks.
‘Only a group of wanderers from afar have passed us by. They asked if they could have a bed for the night but we told ‘em good 'n proper to be
on their way.’
The men began to laugh but fell silent when Wyclyffe muttered a few lines of the Ave Maria.
‘Did we do right, father ?’
Wyclyffe nodded. ‘No person must breach the entrance to the village. If
something that you see or hear makes you suspicious you may call me.
God be with you.’
He walked in the direction of the manor house, glancing at Mattie’s
dwelling as he passed by. Whatever he did – however hard he prayed
– he couldn’t help but feel that all his efforts were in vain. Wyclyffe could see the devil’s presence in everything: the disfigured stranger in the woods; the ill feeling generated by the rebel’s escape; the apparition visited upon the Reeve’s son – all of these things bore witness to the devil’s work. Wyclyffe made a silent promise that he would not flee from his parish. He would prove his faith in God by remaining with the villagers and fighting the devil with simple prayer and his love for the Lord.
Just as he was thinking these things a dog ran across the village square. Wyclyffe stopped in his tracks and made the sign of the cross. The dog was carrying a bundle in its mouth. Wyclyffe watched as the dog dropped the bundle on the floor and began to tease it open.
This was no village dog. It was too sleek in its movements…too well-fed. The devil took many forms.
Wyclyffe alerted the men. They came running towards him, their pitchforks glistening in the moonlight.
‘There’ said Wyclyffe, pointing to the market place. ‘The devil’s messenger is with us.’
They spread themselves, three approaching from behind a derelict dwelling, the others forming an arc. The dog remained unaware of its predators, concerned as it was with unravelling the bundle of rags. Anxious and frustrated it wrestled the bundle in its teeth, then, when it had prised open its contents, let out a mournful sound and withdrew. The men approached. The dog was trapped on all sides.
‘The devil’s messenger’ said one of the men, ‘See how his black coat
glistens. See how his fangs are oiled with the devil’s bile!’
The dog had, by now, been alerted to the men’s approach. It arched its back and stood over the bundle. Then it bared its teeth and growled.
Wyclyffe closed his eyes as he heard the dog’s cry. It was a cry like no
other – the cry of a tormented soul trapped inside the form of a common animal. When the dog fell silent, Wyclyffe shouted to the men to stand to one side, lest the devil himself appear in order to seek revenge.
But the devil did not appear and they stood for some time in silence.
Wyclyffe knelt and gazed upon the contents of the bundle – scraps of fish, berries and bread. He ordered the men to burn the dog’s remains, so as to erase all trace of the devil from their midst.
He felt tired and his bones ached. As he made his way back to the
chancellery Wyclyffe stopped outside Mattie’s dwelling. He listened
but could hear nothing and so continued on his way.
The Reeve’s son, Nicholas, followed the slow progress of the new day.
Through the lattice window of his room he watched the darkness unfold
itself into daylight. He shivered as he did so. His face was beaded with sweat. Even though he had pulled the heavy woollen blankets up to his neck, still he felt cold. It had been a terrible night, punctuated by dreams and fearful hallucinations. At one point the coldness had given over to a fearsome heat that ravaged his body. Even now, freezing as he was, his throat felt so dry that he could barely breathe.
He tried to call out to his mother, even though it was impossible for him to form any words.
Thinking that he had soiled his bed, he lifted the heavy blanket. Sure enough, his white nightshirt seemed to be stained – dark stains in the
region of his stomach and legs. He gritted his teeth. The light was still too faint to assess the full extent of his misdeed. Tears welled in the boy’s eyes. His father would take the tally stick to him for soiling the bed. Cleanliness brought a person close to God. Ever since childhood he had been told that God only loved those who were pure in spirit and deed. He closed his eyes and prayed for forgiveness. ‘Father, be merciful to those who seek Him. Be merciful to those who observe the will of the Lord.’
Sharp pains began to surge through the boy’s legs. Perspiration seeped
from his brow.
In the midst of his pain he tried to leave his bed but could not do so. Now enough light had seeped into the room. The boy examined his arms and chest. What he saw filled him with terror. The stains were black welts, bursting from beneath his skin. They were the same welts as those he had seen on the girl. And as he cried out the boy thought of
his princess lying beneath the hanging tree, the moon illuminating her like silver.
The devil was everywhere. Wyclyffe could sense him - in the village
square and in the forest. The leaves bore the devil’s horns, the earth his three-pronged footprint. And, like the Reeve, Wyclyffe began to cover his mouth, lest he be contaminated by the devil’s breath.
He delivered bowls of pottage to the villagers, handing the bowls
through curtained windows. After he had done so he blessed every
member of every house, then stood panting, sweat beading his brow,
his throat as dry as desert.
Walking back across the market place he looked up at his church. For the first time in his life he saw not a sturdy building expressing a
simple love of Christ but instead a golden fatted calf suckled by temptation. He rubbed his eyes, praying that the horrendous image
would leave him. But it refused to.
Suddenly the sky darkened and the rain returned.
He hurried into the chancellery and slammed shut the door. On the table
stood a pair of silver candlesticks. Wyclyffe took them up and threw them at the wall. Then he went into the church itself, gathering up the golden chalice and the embroidered plate, consigning them to a sack. The sound of metal on metal filled the church, echoing through the rafters. The devil, Wyclyffe reasoned, was howling in pain.
For the next hour he stripped the walls of their paintings and the pews of
their coloured tassles. The silver cross was replaced by a wooden cross which he held together using strips of knotted hessian. And when the church had been plundered of all its finery Wyclyffe sat in the aisle and gave thanks that he had been led to such an understanding. Surely now the village would be safe. God had shown him the one true way.