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Episode 010
The Sickness


The Sickness

3701 BC

Spring was here, the sixth spring without Father, and I missed my father today more than most days. It was always busy this time of year in the stables. He and I used to spend all day in here, taking care of the pregnant animals, helping the mothers give birth, and tending to the newborns. Now he was gone. Many others from Kurhass village helped out in the stables, but without Father, I felt alone. After he was killed by the bear six years ago, Flint took over my father’s duties at the stables and took me under his wing.

Flint seemed old to me, but the other villagers called him a young man. Maybe because his beard was still brown.

“Bloom!” Mother called. She was forced to shout over the deafening sound of the pouring rain. “We are making rabbit stew; come join us.”

I waved to her.

“I’m sorry Flint,” I said. “I’ve got to go home.”

“Family always comes first,” he said. “Thanks for helping out, kid.”

Kurhass calls our baby goats kids, and ever since my father died, Flint has called me his kid. The path led me through the village to my family’s hut, where my kin gathered around the fire. The cauldron was boiling with water and roots and berries. The savory smell inside my home made my mouth water.

“Is dinner ready?” I asked.

“Not yet, Bloom,” said my mother. “We have to add the rabbit.”

“I thought dinner was ready,” I said. “That’s why I left the stables.”

“Your mother wants to teach you to skin a rabbit,” said my mother’s mother. “You are twelve years old now, and it is time you learned how to prepare a stew for your family.”

“I know how to skin a rabbit.”

“You may have seen us skin rabbits, but you do not know how to skin a rabbit yourself. Answer me this: what is the first thing you do when preparing a rabbit for stew?” asked my mother’s mother.

“Make a tiny cut under the throat,” I answered.

“Wrong,” she answered. “The first thing we do is thank our gods for this blessing. We thank our Earth Mother for the flesh of the rabbit, and the heavenly Father for our skill in the hunt.”

Once the prayers were over, my sister took the rabbit, made the cut along the hairline, and pulled the rabbit out of its own fur.

“Oh no,” said my sister. “There is mold on the barley bread.”

My mother looked inside of the clay pot holding the chunks of bread and sighed.

“That’s mold for sure.”

“Take all the bread out of the pot,” said my mother’s mother. “Separate the moldy pieces from the good pieces and place the clay pot outside. You can’t undo the mold, but you can stop it from spreading.”

This was a waste of my time, and I didn’t want to be here anymore. After running my fingers through my hair and sighing I nearly shouted in frustration. I wanted to be back with the animals.

But before I could make a dash for the exit, a rumble and a rattle shook the roof of our home.

“It’s hail,” said my mother.

“Thank you, heavenly Father,” I said out loud.

I wasn’t sure if my mother’s mother thought I was praying to the gods for the rabbit, because she looked at me with a smile. But it quickly faded when I opened my mouth again.

“Flint needs me at the stables; I have to go.”

I didn’t wait for anyone to respond. Once I made it outside, the hail struck my head and ears and shoulders, so I pulled my tunic up and covered my head.

“Bloom, wait,” called Mother.

The hail was coming down hard now, and tiny white pebbles bounced off the tops of the huts and collected in piles. I almost kept walking, but she called again, and I knew she was following me out into the hail.

“What is it, Mother?”

“This is important to us, and it is important to my mother.”

“I know how to make stew.”

“It isn’t just the stew,” she answered. “It’s about our customs, and how we thank our gods.”

“Let my sisters be the ones to make the stew and give grace to the gods. I have important work to do at the stables. Our animals are the future. Father knew that; why don’t you?”

Flint needed me, and the animals needed me. I ran through the hail, which was growing thunderous and drowning out the calls from my mother. The ground was turning white with the little ice pebbles.

“Bloom!” shouted Flint. “You’re back. Help get the nannies inside.”

Men were chasing down the sheep scattered across the fields, trying to herd them into the stables, while Flint shooed them through the gate. It was a chaotic scene.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Count how many we have. Most came running back on their own, but many are frightened and confused. The others are trying to wrangle the stragglers.”

Thunder shook the heavens, and the hail turned from pebbles to rocks. The leaves and branches, and even the thatched roofs, shook violently as the ice ripped them to shreds. A tiny hole was punched through the ceiling of the stable, and pellets the size of eggs rolled through, landing on one of the sheep.

“I’ve got you, little one,” I said as I ran to the sheep.

The animals were scurrying around in full panic, which made it impossible to count them. And then, in the blink of an eye, the hail stopped.

Several men came running to the stables with sheep strung over their shoulders. The poor animals were bleeding, and their fur was stained red. Flint opened the first gate to let them in, and the men placed the injured sheep on a pile of damp hay.

“Are there more out there?” he asked.

I ran to the edge of the stable yard and stared into the fields of grass and the barley patches in the distance. The dark clouds, heavy rain, and occasional lightning strike made the once-green pasture seem a dangerous, turbulent, and violent void. A flash of lightning showed a single individual running through the fields with a sheep over his shoulders.

“Someone’s still out there,” I shouted.

The man ran through the tall grass, up the hill, battling the winds and the rain. He was almost impossible to see in the dark, but the flashes of lightning gave away the sheep’s wool. When I lifted the wooden bar to finally let him into the stables, he laid the sheep onto a stack of damp straw. Everyone gathered around.

“The hail hurt some of them pretty bad,” said one of the men.

“This one is really bad,” said Flint. “We need to take care of him first.”

“What can I do?” I asked.

“Count the sheep and the goats,” said Flint. “Make sure every one is accounted for. If any others are injured like this, bring it to us.”

I left the grown-ups to tend to the injured animals and started separating the goats from the sheep. The stable had sections that could be closed off by lowering a narrow log between two posts. The animals were all frightened, and it was hard to count them… especially with the men shouting on the far side of the stable. The cold wind still blew in from the open side, and patches of the roof leaked cold rainwater.

The dogs barked and the oxen mooed, but I eventually separated the goats from the sheep. That was when I noticed one poor sheep lying in the corner, frozen with fear.

“Come on, little guy,” I whispered to the sheep. “You’re safe now. You’re under cover with your family.”

The little sheep’s head was buried in the straw. Its body was stiff, and it yawned and moaned when I nudged it.

“Come on, nanny; let’s get a move on.”

When I tried to force the sheep up, my hands brushed its hooves, and I felt a sticky goo. They were covered in white paste, and the sheep’s body was burning up with fever. Something was very wrong with this animal.

“Flint?” I called, but no one answered.

I left the frightened sheep in the corner of the stables and joined the others. The sheep that had been struck the hardest by the hail was lying dead on the ground, and everyone stood around saying their prayers.

“We’ll eat this one tonight,” said Flint. “We thank the heavenly Father for saving most of our animals, and the earth Mother for providing us with the meat from this poor sheep.”

The men picked up the dead sheep and carried it outside, leaving me alone with Flint. I pulled on his tunic.

“What is it, Bloom?”

“Something is wrong with one of the sheep.”

“Is it injured? Did the hail break its back?” asked Flint.

“No. Nothing like that. Something is very wrong with it. It’s not moving, and there is a weird white pus on its hooves.”

“Show me.”

I led him to the tiny sheep huddled in the corner of the stables. It didn’t even have the energy to lift its own head, and foam oozed from its mouth as Flint gently lifted its jaw.

“This is very unusual,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It might be cold. We should move it in with the rest of the sheep. Their body heat will help regulate this poor animal and get it back to health.”

I helped Flint carry the weak sheep across the hay from one stable to the next, until it was in the middle of the pen with the others. Once it was resting in the hay, several other sheep approached the fearful one and rested nearby.

“There is nothing more we can do for them now,” said Flint. “We should consider ourselves lucky we only lost one animal today. God only knows how devastating it could have been. Bloom, get some rest, spend the night with your family, and come back in the morning.”

I reluctantly left Flint in the stables and wandered through the thick rain back to my family’s hut. The smell of rabbit stew was strong, and the heat from the fire was welcoming. When I walked in, I was greeted by my older sisters, my mother, and my mother’s mother.

My mother scooped some stew into a wooden bowl and handed it to me. After holding the warm soup to my nose and breathing deeply of the steam coming off the top, I took a big sip and swallowed.

“It’s wonderful, Mother,” I said.

“Come sit with us, Bloom,” my sister called.

I took my bowl of soup and sat down next to the fire with my sisters. Taking slow sips from the bowl, I stared at the coals and the yellow flames. The fire was very warm, and the feeling came back to my legs.

Little droplets of water landed in the fire, and I looked up at a tear in the thatched roof. Rainwater was leaking through and dripping onto the flames.

“A branch crashed onto our roof,” my mother explained. “We’ll have to fix it in the morning.”

“Hail was falling through the thatches and landed in our fire,” my older sister piped up.

“It was a bad hailstorm,” said my mother’s mother. “There will be many roofs in Kurhass that need fixing in the morning, and I’m sure there are many worse off than us. So be thankful.”

“What happened at the stables?” my mother asked me.

“It was chaotic,” I answered. “A lot of sheep were hurt. When the hail turned from small pebbles to big rocks, several sheep were still out in the fields. Many were bleeding, and one of them died from its wounds.”

“How awful,” my mother said. “Were any of the men hurt?”

“If they were, they didn’t show it. One of the sheep was strangely affected by the storm, though. It looked weak and tired, and there was white pus oozing from its hooves. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“Maybe the sheep stepped in something foul,” suggested my sister.

“Maybe,” I said, before taking another sip of the delicious rabbit stew.

“For now, there is nothing we can do but eat and rest,” said my mother. “Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow we can fix the roof. Our heavenly Father has protected us from the hail and the storm, and Mother Earth has provided us with this delicious stew.”

I slurped up the rest of my soup and used my fingers to pick at the bits of meat and mashed roots and berries. The wind and rain still blew outside, but it seemed that the worst of the storm was over. We all lay down on our beds to rest for the night while my mother’s mother stayed up and poked the fire with a stick to churn the coals. She always did this on stormy nights.

I quickly fell asleep, and that night I dreamed about the stables and the animals inside.

When I woke up, I found myself staring at a strange shape of light. We all know that familiar state the mind upon waking, before we remember all of the events of the previous day and the pressing matters of the day ahead of us. It is a moment of peace and relaxation. But it all faded away when I saw the sunlight shining through the crack in the roof.

“The stables!” I shouted as I sat straight and threw the furs off me.

I rolled out of the bed, slipped my shoes on, threw a tunic over my body, and got out of bed.

“Where do you think you’re going?” my mother called from the other side of the hut.

“To the stables. I have to help Flint and the animals.”

“Flint doesn’t need your help. In fact, he came by at sunrise and asked for you.”

“He did? What did he say?”

“He asked if you wanted to help out at the stables. But I told him you were sleeping. You are needed here with your family. We’re going to fix our roof.”

“You want me to help fix the roof?” I asked. I had never been asked to do anything practical around the hut before. It was always cooking and sewing, but never was I asked to help with something as important as fixing the roof.

“The men are going to fix the roof, but I want you here to help make food for them so we can feed them while they work. Your sister and I are going to salt and cook fresh fish from the river.”

“No. I don’t want to do that. Flint needs me at the stables.”

I can’t believe it, I thought as I dashed away from the hut. For her to think I’d rather cook fish then help out at the stables… ugh. She didn’t know me at all. None of this would have happened if Father were still alive.

When I finally got to the stables, everyone was standing around. The roof was damaged, but no one appeared to give it any thought.

Something was wrong with the animals. I sprinted the rest of the way.

“Bloom,” called Flint. “You made it. I thought your mother wanted you to stay in bed and rest after spending the entire night awake near the fire.”

It was obvious that my mother had lied to Flint that day.

“I want to be here,” I said. “This is where my father would be, and this is where I want to be. What’s wrong?”

“Something happened to the sheep. Whatever affected the one sheep last night seems to be affecting all of them. They’re weak and dying. Some are saying they are sick with a fever, but that doesn’t make any sense. Some of these sheep weren’t even struck by the heavy hail.”

“Let me see.”

I walked around the crowd of people looking over the wooden railings and made my way into the stables. In the corner, was a pile of bodies. Most of the sheep were dead, and the rest looked like they were dying.

“What’s that awful smell?” I asked. “Are they rotting already?”

“There is something wrong with them,” said Flint. “That white pus on their feet is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“Is it killing them?”

“I don’t know what is happening,” said Flint.

I thought back to my mother and her mother, and their warning that if we didn’t thank the gods, both the Mother and the Father, for our blessings, they might stop providing. The thought of our heavenly Father or earth Mother striking down our sheep seemed absurd.

“It looks like our heavenly Father struck them all down himself,” I mumbled under my breath.

“This is not our god,” said Flint. “Why would he do such a thing to us?”

“What did you just say?” asked one of the men standing next to Flint.

“Nothing. Something killed these sheep, but it wasn’t our gods.”

“Why would the gods kill our sheep?” asked the man.

“My mother always insisted that we must praise the heavenly Father and earth Mother for our blessings,” I said.

Looking back, I wish I had never uttered the thought out loud. For those simple words created a mess that would never go away. The man who had overheard my conversation with Flint was named Barlus, and he left the stables to head back to the village. Little did we know the real crisis would erupt there. In the meantime, we had a crisis to tend to.

“Keep any sheep that looks sick and dying in the center stall,” said Flint. “Move the rest in with the goats where they’ll be safe.”

Several men used their herding sticks to shoo the healthy sheep out of the center stable and in with the goats. It was sad that there were so few of them. It seemed that out of every ten sheep, five were dead and three were sick.

“This is our food, our clothing,” said one of the villagers. “How are we going to trade with Sohass this season? How are we going to make our blankets and clothes?”

Flint had the stronger men take the dead sheep out of the stables and drop them in a pile outside, while others tended to the sick animals inside. I climbed over the railing, waded through the straw, and knelt next to one of the sheep. It did not look well. When I lifted its head to look at its bloodshot eyes and snotty nose, it coughed, and its head lolled back onto the ground.

“They can’t breathe,” I said to Flint. “The mucus is clogging their airways.”

“This one is burning up with a fever,” said Flint as he felt the belly of a sheep that was turned over on its back.

We spent the morning dripping cold water over the feverish sheep, and we used little wooden spoons to clean the mucus from the noses of the others. Several more sheep died wheezing that morning.

A loud shout drew everyone’s attention.

“What’s going on out there?” asked Flint.

I stood up from the hay, walked to the edge of the stable, and looked over the railing.

“A crowd is heading our way,” I said. “It looks like the chief and the elders are with them.”

Everyone inside the stables stood up and came out to greet the elders. At first, I thought it was a cohesive crowd coming to help out, but I quickly realized there were agitators within the group, shouting over the others.

“We have been cursed,” shouted one of the villagers.

“It isn’t the gods,” said another. “It’s those foreigners from Sohass; they did this to us.”

“Calm down, everyone,” shouted the chief. “We will get to the bottom of this.”

When they finally made it to the edge of the stables, it felt like everyone in Kurhass had come to see what had transpired over the previous night. It didn’t help having a pile of dead sheep outside. That seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears.

“Our sheep have been struck down by the gods,” shouted Barlus.

“Why would our heavenly Father and earth Mother strike down our sheep?” asked the chief.

“I don’t know,” answered one of the elders.

“Maybe it’s because we angered them,” suggested Barlus.

“And how did we anger the gods?” asked the chief.

“I don’t know.” Barlus paused for a moment and looked around at the crowd. “Maybe one of you angered them.”

“We have done everything the exact same way for generations,” said the chief. “Nothing should have angered the gods.”

One of the hunters in the crowd stepped in front of the others and pointed at the pile of dead sheep.

“Maybe it’s the sheep,” the hunter shouted. “And the barley. We’ve lost our way. Perhaps the gods are telling us to stick to hunting and gathering.”

I couldn’t take it any longer. The village was tearing itself apart. I stepped forward.


“Why would our gods punish us for the sheep and the barley? They are the ones who gifted them to us.”

“Maybe the goats are to blame, then,” said Barlus.

“How could it be the goats?” asked Flint.

“They carry it inside of them,” said Barlus. “It’s an evil. It’s a sickness. It came from the goats.”

“It’s the goats now?” asked the chief. “Because only a moment ago you said it was the gods.”

“Maybe a god did it through the goats,” said Barlus.

“Again… why would the gods do that?” asked the chief, as he held both palms up.

“Maybe it wasn’t our gods,” said Barlus. “We traded these goats from Sohass. Maybe it came from there.”

“Sohass wouldn’t try to destroy us,” said the chief. “They are our neighbors. They are our friends. We trade with them. Some of our wives and mothers have come from there. Many of our brothers and fathers live in Sohass.”

“But the goats didn’t come from Sohass,” said one of the elders. “Sohass got the goats from somewhere else—somewhere far, far away.”

“Maybe so far away that they have their own gods,” said Barlus. “Other gods that hate our gods and would want to destroy us.”

“Are you really trying to suggest that there are other gods?” asked the chief. “And that these gods hate us so much they would kill our sheep using their goats? You are babbling like babe without sleep.”

One of the boys called from the stable. “The goats! Something has happened to the goats.”

We gathered around the fence and looked in at the goats. Everything looked normal until the young man approached one goat lying with its head sunken into the dried grass.

“This one is affected by the sickness,” said the young stable boy.

“The goats are getting sick too?” asked the chief. “What does this mean?”

“It means it didn’t come from the goats,” said Flint.

“We must separate the sheep from the goats,” said one of the men in the crowd.

I ran up to Flint and tugged on his sleeve.

“What is it, Kid?” he asked.

“Separating the sheep from the goats isn’t going to work. We have to separate the sick from the strong. Otherwise it will spread to them too.”

“What do you mean?” asked Flint.

“It is spreading like mold,” I said. “But instead of growing on our food, it is growing on the animals. We have to separate the moldy animals from the clean animals.”

“I don’t know if that’s exactly what’s happening now,” said Flint.

“Trust me, Flint,” I begged. “If it were my father telling this to you, would you listen to him?”

“I would,” said Flint, scratching the hair on his chin. He walked over to the sick goat, lifted its leg, and looked at the white smelly paste oozing from the hoof before letting the limp limb fall to the ground. He grabbed the tunic of the nearest stable boy and pulled him in.

“Get this goat out of here,” said Flint. “Put him in with the sick sheep.”

“Are you sure about that?” asked the boy.

“Just do it,” said Flint. “If you see any goats that appear to be sick, take them out of the pen immediately.”

Once the crowd saw that the sickness had spread to the goats, they dissipated. Some went back to work, and others dragged the dead sheep away from the stables and began processing them. Just because they were dead didn’t mean they couldn’t harvest their wool and meat. Barlus, however, remained at the stables, warning us constantly against the foreign gods that were punishing us.

“We should kill all the goats,” said Barlus. “Kill the sheep too.”

Eventually the crowd stopped listening to him, and then Barlus himself wandered back to the village, leaving just me, the stable boys, Flint, and my mother. We worked all day and into the night.

By dawn the next day, we had lost nine out of ten sheep but only one out of every ten goats. Somehow, the goats were more resistant to the sickness.

“We saved them,” said Flint, as the sun crept over the horizon.

“Did we?” I asked. “A lot of animals died.”

“Yes. But more would have died had you not intervened. The sickness might have taken a lot of our sheep, but the true sickness came from the mind. Barlus infected many Kurhasians with his words. He almost had us slaughter every goat we had. We would have lost them all.”

“I’m sure he is back in Kurhass right now, talking about evil gods. Gods other than our Father and Mother.”

“Maybe,” said Flint. “But what matters most is that we still have our animals. And our sheep are starting to look healthier. Who knows? Maybe they will recover, and soon we will have sheep that can withstand the mold of the animal.”

“I only did what came to my mind,” I said. “To be honest, I was trying to do what I thought my father would have done. But I ended up doing what my mother and her mother have been trying to teach me all along.”

“You would have made your father very proud today,” said Flint. “Now go home and sleep in your hut. I’m sure your family would love to have you with them now.”

I left Flint and the stable boys with the animals and went back to spend the morning with my family. After the sickness spread through the stables and killed most of our sheep, the animals that remained never suffered from the infection of the white pus again. As for Barlus, he never stopped talking about the possibilities of foreign gods that wanted to wreak havoc and destruction. He was expelled from the community later that year, but the damage he did to the psyche of Kurhass could never be undone. From the moment the sickness spread, the idea of a world of gods beyond our Father and Mother was ever-present.


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