A Country Priest

Christopher Burns

That year we had the worst winter I had known. It had taken two men with picks to break the ground in the churchyard, and when the soil was lifted it was in great jagged lumps as heavy as stone.

All this was a long time ago. I travelled by horse, although I had once sat in a car owned by my bishop. The villagers told me they never dreamed of owning cars. They were not even sure how they worked, although some of the farmers had tractors. Often, however, the villagers told stories of train rides that would take you to magical places they had never seen – Lublin, Kharkov, Jerusalem. And I would tell them how I had once travelled to cities whose names were mere rumours to them.

That afternoon I took my horse to be shod. It was pleasant to come in out of the street and stand by the blacksmith’s hearth. Fire glowed and licked in the bed of charcoal. The smith stood beside his forge, his arms bare and his hair wet with sweat. He was said to be cuckolding one of his friends, but I had seen no proof. I was vaguely jealous of him. At times the life of the flesh, untroubled by the rigours of the spirit, seemed to me to be a strange condition. Like sleep, it was doomed but happy.

The blacksmith’s was full of the smell of leather, of pickling acid, and most of all the hot, sulphurous smell of charcoal. The horse felt the unexpected heat and urinated in a long viscous stream onto the flagstones. The smith took its bridle and led it forward. I did not have to say anything; he knew about the shoes by the way it walked. I stood nearer the fire. The horse’s winter feed made its urine smell thick and pungent.

The smith bellowed the flames into a glowing, scorching heat and reshod the horse. As he worked we talked about village business – the next day’s burial, the weather, an expected child. His muscles gleamed as he bent, lifted, hammered. I wondered if hell could be something like this. The smith seemed irredeemably physical. I could see the tension in his body increase and relax, watch the sweat coat his brow. When he rested the shoe or a hammer against his leather apron it gave a soft, almost inaudible thud.

Afterwards the horse backed away, its hooves clattering on the stone and throwing off a few sparks. I took the reins from the smith. ‘You owe me nothing for this, Father,’ he said, and his smile was thin. I nodded and blessed him. Then I took the horse back across the street and stabled him.

My housekeeper made me a meal of broth and newly-baked bread. The bread was pleasant but the vegetables in the broth were fibrous, and some of them tasted slightly rancid. The meat, too, was tough. She was embarrassed by this, but I said it was not her fault, and that I would see if any of my parishioners could give me some better food. Afterwards we drank hot, sweet tea that made me feel heady and content.

The boy came to the door just as I was beginning to doze in front of the fire. I did not recognise him at First. He wanted me to come and see his sister at their farm some distance out in the country. I looked up at my house-keeper and she explained who he was. ‘I know,’ I said, although I had not known. I was tired and needed rest.

‘You must come, Father,’ he said, ‘I have been told not to come back without you.’

I looked at him, trying to judge from his face how serious the problem was. He repeated his sentence word for word. I sighed, said I was weary, but agreed to come. His face showed neither gratitude nor relief, merely a kind of stupefaction. ‘He must be warmed,’ my housekeeper said, and made him drink some tea while I got into my boots.

Already the sky was dark enough for the early stars to be seen. I took my horse from the stable and followed the boy on his. Oil lamps burned in several windows, but many had put up shutters. Our shadows were long but already dispersing into dusk. I shivered. The light across the horizon was a narrowing band; it would be another bitter night. I pulled the gloves as tight as I could.

Outside the village all the countryside was frozen snow. Black skeletal trees were dotted around it. Along our track were a series of bare thorns. The sky was darkening all the time, with skeins and clusters of stars springing out across it, and the light wind carried flecks of ice.

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