The distant cries of children could be heard, and a lowing from the cattle pen, and, in that yellow light, colonnaded by the thin pillars of smoke which rose from village fires and seemed to join the white earth to the lowering sky.
The ferryman had but one arm and was called by the name Arno, but I did not glean the name of the other, the gaunt man. He was returning to the village, yet. Arno would not take me, except that I stayed on the road west of the village, for the leader there, Searle, forbade anyone to shelter travellers, and except that I paid a penny for passage, and although this was a high price, I paid it.
And is there plague in your village?’ ‘There was!’ he ferryman pointed to the silent figure in the bow. ‘That one had the shilling in the armpit all right.’
‘Why if he is still alive, he should thank God on every breath,’ I replied.
And the man spoke for the first time in a bitter voice. ‘Ah! God, yes. God! Yet I know who to thank too, separate from God!’
Just a year since, I might have shied from the anger in that voice, and advised repentance. Yet when the Brothers died in Kilkenny there was amongst them my one truest friend, Ray- mond. Upon his death the abyss of my sorrow was so deep and widem I thought to discover there some trace of his immortal soul, or God’s reason for taking him.
Yet I found nothing, and though it is a fearful thing to admit, my spirit rose in anger and all but closed that mighty door to shut God out.
My journey began then, to seek — what? I knew not. A sign perhaps.
‘Then you will thank — who?’ I asked, but the man said nothing, and stared grimly forward from the bow.
‘Cured he was,’ said Arno, ‘and the village free of the Death these last two years.
For by then we came up to a landing where a fat man stood ready to catch the rope. Ulf the Fat was the brother of Searle the head man. He made us fast, then went back to place his hand upon a small shrine, and stood smiling.
This man was the first I had seen smile in many months. And if I sought some sign in my travels, the boast of a man cured and a village free of the contagion could only serve to whet my curiosity further.
Arno refused my entry, saying Searle would knock down the walls of any mans hut who gave shelter to a traveller.