the stove

Frozen and fooled

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 15 Mar 2023



          The next morning we woke up to a double calamity.  Our guide had slipped away in the night, and the wind-blown snow had covered up all trace of the way he went.  The wind lashed snow in our faces.  We could barely see a few yards ahead.  By now I began to seriously complain of this expedition and begged that we all turn back.  But our leader was adamant, and persuaded the others to go on by suggesting it would be far easier to go ahead and rest up in the nearby village, and let the storm blow over, than to turn back now and face a two day trek to the south.

          So we pressed on, slowly, hoping we wouldn’t pass by the place, so poor was our visibility.  I doubt that we proceeded five miles.  We didn’t find the town and worn out and freezing to the bone we dug our tents deep into a snowbank and spent another terrible night shivering in the dark without fire.

          The next morning, as luck would have it, the weather cleared.  We crept out of our tents exhausted but could see just a half mile ahead the dark outlines of several structures against the white sky.  We packed our gear and hurried towards it, but as we approached we began to see what a wretched, little thing it was.  The village consisted of eight log cabins, half of them abandoned and caving in.  In the middle stood a larger house built of planks, with a crude spire and a cross, which served, no doubt, as the church.

          All of these structures were built of dark wood and would have been burned had they been anywhere else.  The endless expanse of white snow and sky was in strange contrast to these objects.  They stood out as if in protest against the white.  When we came up to the first intact cabin our leader began knocking loudly on the door.  No one answered his knocks so we moved on to the church where he repeated his banging.

          After several minutes an old man in black clothing answered the door.  We pushed inside almost knocking him over but met with the most disappointing sight.  The room was almost empty.  It had the appearance of being recently stripped of all its valuables.  On the floor there were a few knocked-over benches.  Towards the far end was a small platform and behind it some sort of altar where only a few candle-stubs remained.  In one corner was a stove and behind that was what looked like a great heap of rags.  But when we approached this heap we saw faces cowering.  It was a wretched group of people, trying to hide where there was no place to hide.  We pulled them one by one from this ball and counted five old men and women and two sickly children, all of them shivering, in fear and in cold.

          Through our interpreter we tried to get them to speak to us.  Only when we offered them food did they cooperate.  They told us the others had gone off the day before, while they were left behind because they couldn’t travel as well.  They begged us not to kill them.  We asked them about the priest and the book, but they only said that he went north with it and that he’d return once we were gone.  This didn't help us much at all, and our interpreter, a very portly priest, picked up the little old man who did the talking and shook him violently in the air.

          After we calmed our companion and restored the old man to the floor we decided that our first business was to warm and feed ourselves.  The stove was cold and I wondered what these people were doing, freezing to death when there was wood to be burned.  We found out that they’d been told not to light a fire if the weather was clear, lest we see the smoke from far away.  With our own fire already crackling, I realized that whoever was out there would know that we were here.  The whole situation began to appear like a carefully planned trap.  I told our leader of this but he would hear none of it.  He said we wouldn’t leave until he had the book.

          We were so worn down that we spent the rest of the day trying to recuperate.  We built a roaring fire, breaking up the benches, and spent the afternoon gorging ourselves on our thawed supplies, all the while rubbing our half-frozen limbs.  Between mouthfuls our fat interpreter asked the peasants more questions and toss them a morsel for each reply.  They were still huddled a few feet from us, staring at us as we sat around the stove enjoying our food.  After several hours I prevailed upon our chief to let them sit closer and share more of our bread.  If they trusted us, I pleaded, they might help us.

          But we didn’t trust them, and rightly so.  We kept them in our sights and we made them sleep that night next to us on the church floor.  Before nightfall three of us made a search of the standing cabins.  The doors had to be kicked in but there was little inside.  Except for the crude furniture and a few rags and implements, everything had been taken.  There was no food, no pigs or poultry, but from some spilled grain we could see that food had been taken.

          We returned to the church with a few shovels and sickles to use as weapons, and more questions.  We found out that the priest had commanded the able-bodied villagers to carry all the food away and hide it, while he himself set off in a different direction.  We didn't know whether to believe this story or not, and so we barred the doors tightly before falling asleep on the floor, with our weapons beside us.

          For the first night in three we slept soundly, too much so, because in the middle of the night we were startled awake by the cries of the old folks settled near the door.  We woke up to the sight of that end of the room on fire.  We raced to the door but took several minutes to open it because of our own barricade.  We were choking from the smoke, but all of us got out in time.  The other cabins, every one of them, were also going up in flames and lit up the night in a ghastly circle around us.

          I expected a fight and had my knife in hand, but there was no one in sight and so we turned with all our wits to quench the fire, using snow and the blankets we’d draped around us.  We made the peasants help us, with kicks and blows, and managed to douse the flames before the church was consumed.  But the whole front wall had collapsed, along with a part of the roof.  We spent the few hours before dawn huddled with the peasants in smoldering ruins.

          That morning we gathered up what was left of our food and equipment, some of which had been damaged by the fire, and prepared to head back immediately.  But while we were doing this the old peasant went over to our interpreter and told him he could lead us to where the priest was hiding, in a cave only an hour to the north.  He was angry that the priest had come back and burned the village, without a care for those who had been left behind.  Our chief was eager to go, for never in his life had he been so outwitted and cheated.

          I was for retreating, even though we had only a day's worth of food left and just two tents.  The others were doubtful.  We were all in sad shape.  But two of them finally voted to make one quick sally against our enemy, for revenge and for any food we might find there.  The weather was clear, but the temperature had fallen to an extreme degree.

          I again had our informant questioned as to how many others might be with the priest.  It was hardly probable that the fires last night were the work of one man, and after all we’d been through, I really feared another trap.  The old man admitted that there might be one other person with him, a stranger who’d arrived the day before, but that was all, the others were sent a full day's march to the east, to another village, and they couldn’t possibly come back so soon.

          One of our group, the youngest of us, had received a severe burn on his back when part of the roof collapsed on him.  He was now lying in the snow and groaning in pain.  We decided that we’d leave him here with the peasants and all our gear, taking only our weapons and our guide.  We promised that we’d be back in two hours.

          We travelled further down the river at least an hour, seeing nothing but a flat expanse of snow and ice.  We began complaining to our guide but he promised us repeatedly that there was a bluff just ahead, where the priest was hiding.  We walked a little further without any bluff in sight.  Our interpreter was furious and about to strangle the old man when he dashed ahead of us and pointed excitedly.  Sure enough there was some dark object not far ahead, but it looked like some sort of pole against the horizon.  A light snow was just beginning to fall.

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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