The Tale of the Bag

 

cartAS I was walking from one town to another I came upon two men arguing by the roadside. From where I first saw them, it was apparent that they were about to come to blows. Though their voices were raised I could not make out what they said, because their anger slurred their speech. As one man grabbed the other, he saw me approaching over his opponent’s shoulder. At once he left the fighting and became quiet, gesturing to the other with his eyes. The suppression of a guilty start is as obvious as the start itself, so I at once apprehended that here might be danger. I relaxed my body and smiled and made to pass by.

Near their feet was a sack, and from the sack spilled small parcels wrapped in oily brown paper. I looked the other way. Both men turned on me.

“You!” The older one with a beard shouted, “Where do you think you’re going?”

I looked down and made myself small, and mentioned the name of the next town, and continued to walk, though slowly. The younger man grabbed at my arm, just as I raised my hand to scratch my nose, so he missed. “Stand still when you’re spoken to!” He roared. So I stood still, which seemed the wisest thing to do, as both of the men were looking threatening. Then he did something the innocent never feel compelled to do—he explained what he was doing to a stranger.

“In the bag are medicines to cure the next town of a plague. Our task is to get them there, for the alleviation of suffering and to the glory of God.” The older man’s expression showed some surprise and amusement. “We wish you to help us, because we have been bearing this heavy load too long.” And he picked up the sack and handed it to me, cramming the spilled contents back in.

The sack had a dark and bitter scent. At first it sat lightly on my shoulders. The day was not unusually hot, but the more we walked the heavier it became—disproportionately, it seemed to me, to its weight or the distance travelled. The older man walked ahead, guiding our small party, and the younger walked behind me, prodding me with a stick whenever I stumbled or slowed down.

I thought to drop the sack and bolt, knowing that they would not leave it and its presumably valuable contents by the road, but there were two of them, and each stronger and swifter than I.

We had not been on the road half an hour when we met a farmer driving a bullock cart in the opposite direction. Seeing us, he slowed down and asked: “Hey, why don’t you help the old man?” The one behind me ground his stick into my back, and whispered that I should be silent.

The one in front said, “My son and I are unable to bear the burden, because we are under an oath before God, and may not work on this day of the week. This kindly old man has agreed to carry our sack for us to the next town,” and gave me a look signifying that I should regret anything I said to the contrary. While we were thus halted, I laid the sack down.

The cart driver said: “Bring your sack up onto the cart, and I will take you to town, after I have dropped these bags in that field over there,” and we all got up onto the cart. So we all rode over to the field and then back to the road, headed towards the town. I was kept silent with threatening looks which, if he saw them, the farmer chose to ignore.

“What’s in your bag?” The farmer asked me.

“Medicines,” the old man said. “Sweetmeats,” the younger said at the same time.

“Ah, those too. The mind of the young is ever on the food,” the bearded one said. The farmer smiled and shook his head.

Around the next corner were two pretty women walking towards town, sweating in the hot sun. The farmer slowed his cart.

“Hop up, you two,” he said, “There’s room for you if everyone shifts up.” So the girls clambered onto the cart and the farmer whipped the beast, and on we went. Soon the one woman noticed the sack.

“What’s in the bag?” she asked, nudging the farmer, taking the sack for his.

“Sweetmeats. And medicines. They’re not mine. These gentlemen are taking them to town.”

“Let’s have one, I’m hungry,” she said, and reached for the bag. The two men both lunged to prevent her from touching it, and hit their heads against each other.

The younger man looked at the other in rage. “You fumbling old fool give it to me!” he shouted. He tugged at the bag.

“Shut up, you worthless piece of shit. Remember where you are,” hissed the older, clutching tighter.

“Piece of shit, eh?” said the younger and was about to lunge at the other’s throat, to judge by his look, when he was brought up by a giggle from the women. He looked down and clenched his fists.

The bearded one spoke: “The sweetmeats are for a wedding. We can’t share them because they have to be accounted for, each one of them, so that all of the guests can get their share. I wish we could dally and share them and things sweeter still, but I can’t.

“Oh, who’s getting married then?” asked one of the women.

“I don’t know the names. Not in this town, but the next.”

“You’ll be late if the stuff is for today. And if it’s for tomorrow it’ll spoil in the heat. Let’s just see one. Can’t harm it with my eyes, but I can pretend I was at the wedding anyway.”

The man with the beard shoved the bag deeper under his knees and tried to ignore her. There was another cart ahead piled high with dung chips ready-dried for the fire. On top of the heap sat two young farm hands and on the other side of the heap was the driver, though we could only see the end of his whip.

“What are you taking to market, apart from your pretty selves?” one lad called to the women.

“Sweetmeats,” she said, “This greybeard has a bag of wedding pastries and such which he won’t share: a whole feast in a sack.”

“Mean old bastard,” the lad said, laughing, and they both jumped down and trotted beside the cart, peering in for the bag and for a glimpse of the women’s legs.

Now they started to tug for the bag in a teasing way, showing off for the girls. The men with the bag both became angry, and the younger shouted at them.

“Leave us alone. Fuck off!”

This, of course, had the reverse effect on the young men, who laughed and teased, plucking at the sack and glancing at the girls. The carts came to a downward slope and speeded up, so the boys jumped onto ours, making seven in the cart. At once a fight broke out. The farmer was forced to pay attention to the bullock, which was having trouble on the steep downhill, but managed to keep up a steady stream of shouts and curses to his passengers.

I decided it was time to make my exit, so I quietly slipped off the back of the cart, taking my small bundle. We were going quite fast, for a bullock cart, that is, and I nearly fell. As I steadied myself, the noise of the fight and the driver’s shouting stampeded the bullock, who set off at a gallop towards the narrow ford in the stream below. I watched the bag, tugged from three sides, erupt. The small oily parcels spilled all over and off the cart, which was now going at breakneck speed. As it reached the ford the cart lost a wheel and the whole thing twisted sideways, tipping all the passengers into the pond, tumbling the contents of the bag into the water, and leaving the poor bullock thrashing in the yoke. In the process the cartload of dung chips was also dumped into the stream. I didn’t need to hide myself as I walked away. They were all too busy to notice something as silent as my departure.

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