Totally unexpectedly, the Woman appeared in front of Kul's hermit cell. She halted at the forest's edge, half-turned to observe his egress, her mouth on the verge of crying out; but she did not let out a shout, and her right hand, arrowless, drew away from the quiver on her left shoulder. For a moment they looked at one another, before she turned and leapt into the thicket.
Hesitantly Kul continued en route to the nearby stream thinking about the motivation and eventualities of the visit. He was perturbed.
Having drawn water with a wooden bowl, he returned to his cell, where he mixed it with a crudely ground flour to bake cakes from the paste. He ingested them with the remaining water, and, genuflecting, tried to pray, but in vain, as curiosity over the cause and meaning of the visit disturbed his thoughts, preventing the ecstatic fusion of will and emotion that characterizes communion with the Lord.
Why did the Woman come? Who sent her? Is the Lord testing his resistance? Is Satan trying to deflect him from the proper path? What is she like? Savage. Did she wear scanty clothing? Yes. He must be on guard. She will return. Maybe soon. Maybe often. Maybe tomorrow.
But she did not return the following day. Nor the day after. Three days passed; six days; but she did not come, and Kul began to believe she was a hallucination, whose continued absence he fervently celebrated. He regained his composure and his wherewithal to pray, and scourged his body, glorifying the Lord.
On the seventh day the Woman returned, this time neither suddenly nor by chance, but slyly and stealthily. She spied on Kul through the foliage at the wood's edge while he chiseled pious aphorisms on the boulder at the foot of the cliff near his sanctuary, and was visibly distressed when he spotted her. Again she placed her hand on her quiver, but again withdrew it without an arrow in hand, and ran into the forest.
After a moment's hesitation Kul dropped the chisel, and not knowing exactly what for, ran after her, guided by the fronds displaced by her flight, anticipating with trepidation their meeting when strong tremors suggested fresh passage; begrudging his procrastination, when his slow pace trailed upon scarcely perceptible reverberations that whispered her passage. Procrastination nonetheless finally won out, because the doubts which gave birth to it were stronger than the nebulous vexation caused by the failed chase. Kul returned meditatively and slowly to his cell, trying to find a motivation and a motivator for his pursuit, but the more he meditated, the more his thoughts became entrapped in a complex network of uncertainties and suspicions.
His soul's tranquillity again deserted him, and to regain it was more difficult than before, because he was now troubled by curiosity as to whether the woman was always spying on him when he was busy outside of his shelter, and his incessant struggle against the tendency to keep watch on the forest rim hampered his undivided attention to efforts to which he was supposed to be dedicated. Thus the reproach of his conscience sapped his will to solve these unresolved questions, which consequently tormented him even more, and Kul realized he was in crisis.
After three days he gave up his labors outside and prepared himself to persevere in self-examination leading to mental adjustment and right conduct. Stretching himself out naked on the uneven rocky floor of his cell, he strove to isolate the core of the problem from a confusion of questions which perversely shredded his thread of thought into discontinuous strands. For hours he lay without food and drink, occasionally grinding his teeth from the intensity of his efforts to ignore the dissipating, diversionary questions which insistently intruded; but every failure apparently weakened his will and demanded the redoubling of his efforts, until fatigue all of a sudden leveled his agitation, and his thoughts flowed with consistency and serenity.
Certainly he would have to decide who sent the Woman, Satan or the Lord, because the motive would naturally depend upon the dispatcher: Satan to tempt him, or the Lord to test him--or both of them? The question struck him like lightning, prompting acknowledgment at the very thought. Of course the Devil was trying to seduce him as he unremittingly behaves, and the Lord permits it as He himself wishes to test his servant! Aborting these burgeoning series of thoughts about omnipotence and the source of evil, Kul decided upon a code of conduct concerning the Woman on the basis of the motivations just ascertained.
Temptation must be resisted. But how? By ignoring it? Ignoring it would not expunge it; and its continued presence would impose a constant temptation. To allow enduring temptation is itself a sin; consequently ignoring it can lead only to sin. Therefore he would have to drive her away; but taking care not to hurt her. That would also be a sin. Thus Kul reasoned, and thinking it through brought Kul relative peace.
The following day he sat in front of his cell feeding a variety of birds, who without the slightest fear sat upon his shoulders, arms, and one even on his finger; as they were already completely accustomed to the gentle hermit and found the area safe and abundant in crumbs, since the rare visitors also respected the pious one's realm. Nonetheless, suddenly the confident little guests collectively fluttered off chirping out a warning, and, turning his head, Kul spotted the woman standing only a few steps away. Jumping up, he charged her, making menacing gestures according to plan; but instead of running away, the Woman transferred an arrow from her quiver into her bow with lightning speed, and believing himself about to be shot down, Kul stopped, fearlessly exposing his chest to death.
The Woman did not shoot, but stared with wild eyes under furrowed black brows directly into Kul's eyes, holding her aim at his chest. A tense silence held sway until Kul finally broke it: "Shoot!" he challenged her in Greek, tearing the cloth covering his chest, "I do not fear death." The woman pulled on the bow at his gesture, but neither shot nor answered. Kul tried a new tactic: "Away with you, devil woman!" he commanded as if exorcizing her, "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, begone! Return to your master and admit your failure, because neither temptation nor death will break my resistance. I stand under the aegis of the Most High, and I defy you."
Again his gestures provoked a mild response. The addressee leaned forward as if to add her strength to the tension of the bow, but she held on to the bowstring, and Kul added in a gentler tone: "What do you want of me, a mere unworthy servant of the Almighty? I am Paul of Kibe," he continued giving his Christian name. "My parents converted soon after my birth, and diligently instructed me in my youth, so that I left my homeland Paeonia to seek the best way to serve my Savior. So I reached this place, where I am staying for the time being to revere the Most High and discern his will if I can. Why begrudge me that? It is only peace I want, peace I offer. I do not wish you harm." Letting his hands drop he stood passively waiting for the Woman to speak.
"I rule this forest nowadays, and you risk death if you remain; because it is not allowed for a man to stand before me while I hunt. Know that you face a priestess of Diana," she added, explaining, using a Greek dialect, whose regional pronunciation was still purer than that of Kul the Goth.
A new possibility dawned on him. Was his mission now to reach a glorious culmination in the conversion of a pagan priestess? Indeed the occasion presented itself.
"You are serving a chimera, oh my poor sister," he said gently. "Your gods are shadows, hallucinations from a savage past; but now the Truth is entering the world. Hear it, and be saved."
"You are an adept of the Nazarene," the Woman uttered as a virtual accusation.
"He who died to save us both; to save humanity."
"I know about your sect. You now abound and believe yourself masters; but watch yourself: the forest is ruled by me in the name of my mistress."
"There exists only one God. He rules all."
"Watch yourself; I'm warning you. It is only a two-day march from where Olympus rises in the south. You believe yourselves powerful, but your Yahweh means nothing in this territory. Zeus rules here, and the arrows of Diana."
"But you must abandon those myths and acknowledge the truth. Your gods have no actual existence, and are fit only for the barbarians of ...."
"Barbarians? Ha!" sneered the Greek woman.
"You must abandon those apocryphal gods."
"Never! The gods of my fathers are my gods. The gods who raised my nation to glory I will serve forever."
"But that is not permitted. The beatified emperor Theodosius issued a decree against the adoration of pagan deities."
"Zeus is the one I serve, not the emperor."
"Does Zeus promise you paradise? Did Zeus offer his own son to save humanity? Do you believe, that the holy martyrs delivered themselves to death for a creed less worthy than the official one?"
"I know that Zeus thunders and severely punishes atheists. I warn you again: leave this forest. I should kill you right now, but I will offer Diana all of my victims today, pledging tomorrow's kill as well; anyway, leave this place, because if I run into you after I yell out, nothing will save you from my arrows."
Having said that, she suddenly turned and ran into the forest.
Thinking through the visit Kul felt some exaltation in himself and succeeded in justifying it using several facts: first, he thought he succeeded in sowing the first seeds of doubt in the pagan woman's mind; secondly, his duty was now clear; thirdly, having confronted the prospect of death he could be less afraid of future spiritual dangers. He knew well that the threat was not a bluff; because it is the unavoidable duty of a hunting priestess of Diana to kill anyone who ignores her warning cry. Now he knew the source of the strange howls he had heard several times of late.
That evening he stretched himself out on his hard resting place--awaiting total repose, but although his mental tranquillity permitted him to fall asleep immediately, he awoke even more suddenly in the dark of night. Outside it was pouring, and the thunder growled in agony, confirming the cause of his awakening.
Kul became stiff with terror. What did he do? How did he offend the Lord? Here was an unquestionable warning that the Most High was angry. He sinned; his self-satisfaction was unjustified and offensive to God. But what did he do that was bad? What should he have done? Lightning flashed for a moment outside, and Kul hastily got on his knees when the next burst of thunder came, to ask for guidance and forgiveness; but he could not pray; his unfocused mind wandered outside into the violence of the storm; his lips emitted formulaic prayer verses, but his thoughts fantasized above a storm-tousled sea of trees, which carpeted a bizarre landscape with a mountain looming in the background.
Having reached its climax, the storm gradually died down, but the man on his knees still attempted to reach his Master in vain, conscious with fatigue and resignation of the growing chasm between Heaven and the prayers dying at his lips, until at last he stumbled onto his side into a troubled sleep. When he awoke, the light was already gray; with a groan he got up, rubbing his stiffened muscles. Without eating, without hesitation, he went down to the river, as he had already decided upon a drastic remedy to purify his soul and find the truth via mortification of the flesh; and having chosen a place where the water was deep, he boldly waded in.
It was still early summer, and the melting snow swelled the riverflow, making it so frosty cold that sharp pains contracted the hermit's leg muscles, which no less obstinately waded in even further until the water was up to his waist. Shivering, he approached a group of rocks, which raised him out of the flow, like black fangs, and maneuvered his body into a V-niche whose peaks were raised above the foaming surface, allowing him to submerge gradually until only the rocks under his armpits kept him from being carried away by the torrent, and the underwater convergence of the V supported his weight. Sighing with anguish, he allowed his feet to float free and tried to ignore the spasms of pain that tortured his body, by doggedly applying his mind to prayer and meditation.
The water foamed about his body, and his body involuntarily convulsed under a torturous freezing lashing, until every thought, every sensation, gave way to the blackest sensation of intolerable pain, and the suffering man almost lost consciousness. Finally, though, the pain was dulled, and his anesthetized flesh could no longer sense the weight of the supporting rocks.
Now he would learn the truth; he would have to find it out! Why could he not think? His brain was clear; the flesh silent. But the spirit of the truth is everywhere, at all times. It is only necessary to hold the mind steady and it will come without fail. The tinkling splashing of the water now seemed more distant: sometimes above his head, sometimes way way below. The foam like cream slid over his shoulders; also underneath but not visible there. Everywhere whirling foam; above his head it vaporized into fog, white fog. But it is imperative to find the truth, to concentrate his strength to get at the truth. It is urgent. Now. The occasion presents itself. Now. One chance. To catch it, grab it. To think, to strive; not to sleep, not to dream. Why does the truth demand so much effort? Sincerity has a right to truth. Without hindrance. To ask, to listen; to understand. To attain the spirit of truth which hovers nearby ... there!
The Spirit of Truth showed itself, emerging from the white fog hanging before his eyes, distinguishing itself from the background only by the inner light that lit up its rosy face, as its white robes melted diaphanously into the surrounding fog.
Tired but content Kul rasped:
"The Woman ..... she is a temptation?"
"She is a temptation."
"The flesh? Enemy of the spirit? The destroyer?"
"Familiarity would lead only to sin?"
"She is cunning?"
The Spirit of Truth swelled to monstrous proportions. Kul struggled not to become absorbed into it. The water splashed at his ears.
"She is not a priestess of Diana?"
"But under that form has come to destroy me?" Kul strove not to tumble backward into the yawning abyss.
"She is .... who is she really?"
"She is Diana herself."
Kul regained consciousness with a feeling of external warmth but internal chill. He automatically moved toward the source of the warmth but found that he couldn't even move his arms, and opening his eyes noticed that he was swathed in a wool blanket, and that a bonfire was crackling a few steps away. Next to it sat the Woman. Noticing that he was coming to, she spoke to him.
"Do you want to kill yourself?" She scolded as she asked, "lying in that river when the frost had barely dispersed from the shore! Are you crazy?"
The lash of her voice warmed up Kul's body with a strange pleasure. With a gentle voice he answered.
"No, I was casting out devils from my body, immersing it in pure water."
"You almost cast out your life. Is that how you honor your God? By sacrificing yourself?"
"Oh no: it is a sin to destroy God's work. I'm very thankful that you saved me from suicide, though that would have been unintentional. I lost consciousness," explained Kul, wrestling feebly to liberate himself from the tightly binding blanket. "What is your name?'
"Esteza," the Woman answered as she unrolled the blanket.
With shame Kul realized that he was naked, and tried to cover himself up again at least in part, but the woman already lifted his graceful body in her strong arms to carry him to the fire. Nakedness touched nakedness; flesh flesh; Kul smelled the female's sweat, felt an undulating breast under his ribs, and with a sudden queasiness in reaction to the freezing and deprivation, clung to her body: to the sensuality of the woman, to warmth and life, eagerly kissing the curve of her neck, sucking and nibbling her salty skin, which flinched with excitement; because now the Woman falling on her knees reciprocated his frenzy with a wide-open mouth, with arms embracing and hands sliding--until her elbow accidentally brushed against a symbol of masculine violence, the destroyer of her vows, and she jumped up with a shout.
Kul lay on the ground distressed for a moment, still under the spell of sensuality. He glanced at the Woman, who was standing with a strange expression: an expression that was tender yet fearful. Life drained out of him, and duty and austerity resumed their post, driving desire out of Kul's heart with the icy realization that he had fallen, plunged headlong into the swamp of lasciviousness.
The catastrophic proportions of his sin hit him hard, and he bowed his head toward the blanket, which he had already drawn to himself to hide his nakedness.
"Oh God, God, God," he sobbed, "how was I capable of behaving this way? How could I--having been warned--so willingly given way to the flesh? Have compassion, and explain! I became a beast, and it was not my doing that saved me from the final shame." He paused and looked at the Woman, though avoiding her eyes.
"Oh devil woman, why didn't you go the distance and exploit your initiative?", he asked. "Does it amuse you, that any purity I have left I owe to the act of a pagan woman? Am I really any less guilty for that?"
"Becoming aroused just happened unexpectedly, and in the final analysis we didn't .....", the Woman began to console him while looking at the ground.
"Begone, Satan!", yelled the hermit. "Get out of here with those sly and slippery words! You think I don't know the score? Didn't I dedicate myself to God's service, arming myself against all temptations? And look: the first time temptation strikes--here I am: a worthless, vile, miserable traitor to my Master!--here I am, who vainly and proudly pledged pious, spotless service to the Savior of Humanity, just salivating over a woman, with less willpower than a copulating dog! Go then! Tell your master that you succeeded in bringing down a miserable, worthless hermit; but also tell him he will never possess my spirit; because now I will do penitence, bring on myself all kinds of punishment, scourge my body to quell the righteous anger of the Most High. Here's your only conquest: you made me suffer to acquire grace! Get out of here! I must pacify my patron."
"And I mine," responded Esteza, priestess of Diana.
In the subsequent days Kul's body shrank to a skeletal cadaver under the rigors with which he afflicted himself, but they could neither equal nor quell the torments of his soul; because though he believed in God's compassion to pardon him after his sincere demonstrations of penitence, he still knew that now the situation demanded unswerving and positive action. Passivity is impossible when up against a threatening temptation. He would either have to get rid of it or run from it.
The latter alternative at first thought appeared unworthy of the devout, but it would be even more unworthy to remain in the territory of a pagan priestess, not making an effort to convert her; still, Kul could not forget how God's angry warning responded as it did to Kul's previous scheme, and he had just about decided to extricate himself from the dilemma by taking flight, when a new circumstance presented itself, altering his decision. He received a warning.
During a stay in the hermitage of several years Kul greeted very few visitors because of the forest's density and its distance from human dwellings, but his existence was known, and he had already met the two advisors-- rustics from a village abutting the forest--who had now come. They were Christians and had a great deal of respect for the hermit.
After paying respects, the older one explained that they came to advise Kul to flee. "Because, oh holy man, the orientals are again invading, and this time no one can stand against them. Everyone is fleeing south before their advance. We will do the same, and so must you."
Kul understood, naturally better than the speaker, the value of the wish to flee the Huns, because during his grandfather's lifetime the Goths relocated from their home on the Danube into the empire to avoid those very invaders, the Huns. His grandfather did not follow the rest, but migrated south to Paeonia, where Kul's father was born and converted. That decision of Kul's grandfather secured peace for the family when the other Goths revolted for lack of means of subsistence in the empire, and likely also secured the Christianization of Kul. Therefore, he decided that he would not run away but would remain here, trusting to God to halt the barbarians while Kul would take steps to convert the pagan woman, reasoning that conversion could only be a good thing to aim for; only excessive self-satisfaction and uncertainty over the plan with resultant procrastination and its consequences could be dangerous. The solution to his problems suddenly became obvious, as an inevitable duty.
"Pronounce your Verdict, then, oh Most High!," he prayed. "If my conduct is right, let me prevail in your name! If not, accept my spirit and indulge my folly, as unfit to serve you."
His decision brought him some peace of mind, and so, praying, he waited patiently without food and with little drink, readying his soul for a very possible eventuality. Finally the sound he was waiting for reached his ears, and, grasping the wooden crucifix which stood near his sleeping quarters, he entered the sunlight and tottered to the edge of the woods, where he paused to listen.
Again the howl of the hunting virgin sounded, and Kul ran in its direction, pushing away the fronds blocking him, with his bony arm. The ground now sloped, and several times he stumbled but persistently picked himself up and made his trembling legs carry him onward. After awhile he paused once more, panting, to redirect himself to a new holler. It never came, but he thought he heard a crackle of fronds a bit to the right, and turned in that direction, proceeding more cautiously so as not to lose the sound, until he came to a clearing among the trees. The noise came from the opposite side, and suddenly the Woman jumped out from the camouflage of the trees and hollered. Simultaneously, Kul ran into the clearing holding before him the primordial Zeus-symbol of honor, now resurrected from the shame of centuries, and shouted:
"I am shielded by this cross, the protector of peace. Acknowledge it, accept the truth, and enjoy the peace that enters ....."
The Woman halted, but the infinitesimal hesitation of surprise was scarcely perceptible, as her right hand had speedily crossed over her chest, then swinging back plucked an arrow to her raised bow, and with the same fluid movement drew the bowstring. With the unbroken effortlessness that comes from long practice, the archer raised her bow and spread her feet apart, and, pulling the string to her right breast, aimed for a moment, and shot.
With an audible thump the bow struck the target and penetrated the right side of Kul's rib cage, knocking him down onto the grass, which he snatched at convulsively, gasping and gurgling from the blood bubbling in his throat. Meanwhile, the Woman notched another arrow into the still vibrating bowstring, and waited dispassionately until her struggling victim's chest momentarily presented itself as a target. Again she shot; the hissing arrow punctured his ribs, and Kul started with a rasping sigh before falling on his face with his dead limbs trembling.
The Woman stepped over to the cadaver, and stood there a long time looking at it. Then she raised her eyes to the sky.
"Bear witness, gods: I have dispatched the shade of the heretic into the underworld, faithful to my vow. Only the flesh remains," she said, in despair.
English translation copyright by Ralph Dumain ©2000
Translator's note: "Kul" is the Esperanto root meaning "gnat", but there is no way of knowing whether the author intended such an association to be inferred regarding the name of this story's protagonist.
Source of the original Esperanto short story:
Francis, John I. “La Tento de Kul,” Belarto, n-ro 1, aprilo 1958, p. 11-15. Reprinted, without illustrations, in:
Francis, John I. "La Tento de Kul", in: Vitralo [Stained Glass Window] (La Laguna: J. Regulo [Stafeto], 1960 [Beletraj Kajeroj; no. 4]), pp. 76-88.
La Tento de Kul de John I. Francis
La Klera Despoto de John I. Francis
Okazos je la Deka de John I. Francis
Odo al Najtingalode John Keats, elangligis John Francis
Ĝeraldina de John Islay Francis
Ombroj en mateno de John Francis / Shades of Morning translated by William Auld
Rimletero (pri John I. Francis) de William Auld
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