As promised in the Chatterbox column from our recent Issue 125, here is a full version of a story from Bob Elvis…
Storytelling: The folk tradition in many cultures, from Ireland to India, has its roots in the art and craft of the storyteller. The ‘bard’, ‘skald’, ‘rhapsode’, ‘minstrel’ (amongst others) told and re-told tales of traditional lore, their stories evolving to reflect changes in custom, belief and context, and in doing so gaining new depths and perspectives. Bob Elvis upholds and celebrates the best in this rich history in his innovative and lyrical reworking of age old stories and songs: read on…
Beast of Burden
The hills surrounding Bonham Lee had a profound relationship with the tiny village. They rose steeply on all sides, glowering down like a prize-fighter over the fallen in winter, gazing benignly like a fond parent over the crib in summer. When biting winds chafed and chided the lowlands beyond, the hills cradled the village snug, safe and warm in their palm. But when the fleeting clouds stalled and massed at the foothills, crowding and jostling until black-faced and ill-humoured they spilt over the crests then were unleashed downpours which castigated the little hamlet. The silvery bourn which ran through the centre became an uncomfortably engorged, blue-black vein, threatening to burst its walls at every minute. The sun struggled to scale the slopes from September to March, gifting to the village prolonged nights and gloomy days. The intervening months hoisted the sun high above, its rays rushing in joyful waves down from the hilltops and bathing the village in its undiluted warmth.
The circle of stocky sentinels ensured that not a great many knew about Bonham Lee and that few dared to trek to its door. Thus the diminutive township and its inhabitants dozed largely untroubled and unhurried by the world outside. But those same gentle guardians were jailers too. Villagers rarely, if ever, travelled beyond the hills. The one track out of the village was narrow, steep and rocky and they were deeply suspicious about what might lurk on the other side of their natural frontier. Thrown in upon themselves, they became an unleavened, intense people, brooding and volatile in turns.
The climate and terrain dictated by the hills made farming on any scale other than pure subsistence impossible. Each little household had its scrubby, barely adequate, kitchen garden and a few lean and threadbare chickens. Several had a dairy cow and thus, by husbandry and barter, they kept themselves supplied with the basic necessities of life.
So, secluded, they might have wasted away, their numbers diminishing with the years until all that was left to tell of their existence were the bleached and scabby skeletons of ancient broken buildings, a failed and forgotten error in the history of the land. Were it not, that is, for the fact that they had developed a skill far beyond the wit and will of any other population in that area. They could spin the finest yarn imaginable. No-one knew what happy accident had given birth to this rare expertise. Its genesis was lost in the mists of prehistory. However, protected from outside influence and local distractions the skill was honed and passed from generation to generation, each one adding and embellishing until the thread from Bonham Lee was superlative. It was strong and even, soft and light, a joy to work with. The competence and craft of the village would have remained a hidden jewel had it not been for the Drover family. Since time immemorial, they alone had risked the rugged track up over the hills to the towns beyond. They brought in by packhorse the raw fleeces that the villagers converted to gossamer fibre. They took out the spools of magical yarn to the weavers, returning once more with raw materials and, of course, the proceeds from the trade. And from this trade, the Drovers scratched a living subtracting a levy on every transaction.
The master spinners of Bonham Lee were totally dependent upon the Drovers who, in turn, relied upon the craftsmen. Both parties could, and should, have rubbed along famously in peaceful symbiosis but, as is the human nature of things, this was doomed not to be so. The villagers, conveniently forgetting the hardship of the trek out of and into the village that they were spared, grew to resent the payment made to the intrepid Drover family. They, the spinners, were the artisans; theirs was the craftsmanship that drove the trade. The muleteers were but parasites leeching on the back of their prowess. Gradually, with the passage of time, a chasm opened up between those that created the yarn and those that hauled and traded it. Where once had flowered a happy co-existence through mutual trust and respect grew the choking weeds of bitterness and contempt. The spinners demanded that an ever higher price for their yarn be charged at the weavers and that an ever lower levy be taken by the Drovers. The cloth-makers began to look further afield for their supplies of fibre and became adept in the art of blending out all but the most essential of wools from Bonham Lee. For what they did use they paid a kings ransom and they too grew to feel cheated, exploited and abused. The only available target for their anger was the man with whom they traded. They grew to hate and despise the man with the packhorse.
The Drover family withered like a vine in a bitter North Easterly. Each generation grew fewer in number as trade and the proceeds from it dwindled. Now all that was left was old Abel Drover and his equally venerable mule Tosca. Chided and derided on all sides, the old man withdrew and, in his loneliness, preferred the company of the dumb, uncomplaining animal who demanded so little. He removed himself to the furthest corner of the village and around his seclusion grew a canker of suspicion and uncertainty. Children mocked him when he ventured into the streets, hurling insults, and the occasional anonymous pebble, but always from a safe distance. Adults muttered audible oaths as he passed by.
One day, having loaded as usual the spools of yarn into the packs on Tosca’s back, Abel began the long, hard climb out of the village. This time, instead of the silent, solitary track which normally greeted him, his way was lined by groups of jeering villagers. As the old man toiled up the pathway, the villagers ridiculed him, gathering round and guffawing at the stupidity of a man who would keep an ignorant beast of burden and yet walk when he could ride. Abel tried to stop his ears to their insistent laughter but their jostling criticism wore him down until he was compelled to mount the already laden animal. A mocking cheer of victory went up from the crowd which gradually dissipated as the straining mule rounded a bend in the road and disappeared out of sight.
The next day saw Tosca loaded as before and led away by Abel out of the village. The poor beast had clearly suffered from the exertions of the previous day and progress was painful and sluggish. As they rounded the bend in the road which heralded the start of the ascent from the village they were, again, surrounded by a milling mob this time chastising the old man roundly for his heartlessness toward a poor, suffering, overburdened animal. Though Abel tried to push on through the crowd, the atmosphere grew ugly and threatening and he was forced to stop, untether the brimful baskets from the mule’s back and take the load upon his own. Bent-backed, Abel trudged off up the road leading the packhorse, the sardonic applause of the spiteful village people ringing in his ears.
On the third day, the loaded Tosca and his master were beset once more by a belligerent horde which immediately crowded round them, pointing fingers, pushing the old man and kicking at the mule. The air seethed with sniggering gibes and taunts which grew louder and more persistent as Abel and his packhorse tried to push their way through. Increasingly hostile, the villagers closed ranks and demanded that Abel relieve the mule of its load. Realising that resistance was futile, the old man, with weary resignation complied and once more tried to make a start on his journey.
The rabble pressed in more tightly, some leaning surreptitiously on the baskets to increase the load on Abel’s back. The mob chanted for the old man to carry yet more and Tosca was stripped of the sturdy wood and leather framework which supported the baskets now strapped across his master’s back. The baskets were removed from Abel, the framework settled in place upon his shoulders and the panniers positioned again. The old man’s back sagged a few more inches as he painfully began to trudge forward anew.
Still the crowd were not satisfied and called for yet more weight to be forced upon old Drover. This time, the thick, heavy bridle and harness were removed from Tosca and crudely strapped to the head, neck and shoulders of the mule’s master. Several of his persecutors pulled upon the reins, others dragged upon the harness whilst still others prodded and stung him with switches of wood. Abel faltered but, with an immense effort, began to inch forward again.
At this, an uneasy quiet breathed in and fluttered around the crowd. Having come this far with such apparent purpose, the mob became singularly uncertain about how to proceed. One or two at the periphery began to detach themselves and drift away from the main body of bullies. Then, just as it seemed the gathering would fracture and disintegrate, a single vindictive shout went up that Abel should carry the packhorse too. A momentary silence of incredulity descended. Then a second voice repeated the call. A third swiftly followed, and soon a swelling malevolent chant echoed around the clearing. Abel was pinioned by the arms and forced roughly to his knees whilst Tosca was hauled unwillingly up behind the old man. Blows and kicks were rained upon the mule’s flanks and rump until he moved forward and trod his front hooves onto the lids of the baskets at Abel’s shoulders. The crowd bayed for the old man to stand. When his first attempt failed, canes whipped at his arms whilst a cascade of curses was heaped on his head. Abel strained until his every fibre shook, his bloodshot eyes outgrew their darkened sockets and veins embossed his parchment neck. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, Abel’s left knee began to rise from the floor. He ground it into in a pose of semi-genuflection and seemed to gather himself for one more mammoth effort when, with a low grunt, he breathed his last and collapsed to one side; dead. Tosca stumbled away from his fallen master and trotted off nervously into the hills, never to be seen again. The stunned crowd dispersed quickly, eager to avoid its shame.
Abel was buried at night in an anonymous grave on the most distant outskirts of the village. The disgraceful events of that day were never mentioned again. With the only link to the outside world severed, the spinning wheels of Bonham Lee were stilled. And the village wasted away until all that was left to tell of its existence were the bleached, scabby skeletons of ancient broken buildings; a failed and forgotten error in the history of the land.