Prosatio Silban and the Sovereign Cure

(Five-and-a-half printed pages, inspired by our current situation. If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. Enjoy!)

THEY SAY, SOMETIMES, THAT THE cure is worse than the disease. But to Prosatio Silban’s way of thinking, that just means it must be the wrong cure.

The Cook For Any Price was slowly driving his galleywagon along the dusty main street of an apparently deserted village. He had been there before, though long enough ago that he had forgotten its name. However, he did remember the laughter of its children, the music of its minstrels, and the burble of its creek. It had then been a small but bustling hamlet of some two hundred lively souls – but now, all that greeted him were the deep croaking of creekside bullfrogs and the dismal drone of hidden watch-crickets. A pennant of smoke hung in the distance, the view of its source blocked by tumbledown shacks.

His “Hallo! Hallo?” going unanswered, he reined his dray-beast to a halt in front of a typically rickety, thatched hovel and stepped down from the driver’s bench. I don’t recall this village being so shabby, he thought as he approached the low and open doorway. Why – how? – did the residents let it come to this?

He was about to knock on the broken doorpost, when a female voice cried weakly from within, “Begone! Begone, if you fear for your life!”

Prosatio Silban peered into the hut’s interior, but could not distinguish anything within the shadowed gloom. “Are you alright?” he asked, but the only reply was silence. “Do you need help?”

“There is no help that you can offer,” came a hoarse voice from behind him.

“Truly, yours is a tale of woe. There must be some way I can help you?”

The beefy cook turned to see half a dozen face-kerchiefed men and women carrying a long, shrouded bundle, three to each side. Two others bore reed-baled firewood on their stooped shoulders. They were lean, dressed in tatters, and pallid of complexion – deathly pallid.

“Why not?” he asked the man who had spoken to him. “What is wrong here?”

“It is not a question of ‘What is wrong?’ so much as ‘What is not right?’” the man replied in mournful tones. “It has been long past time that the sound of laughter echoed in these streets. Since the Wasting Despondency began its sluggish shamble among us, we have been reduced to what you see before you now.”

“What is this ‘Wasting Despondency?’” asked Prosatio Silban.

“Its chief manifestation is a mild fever with attendant pains, unnatural pallor, and a general malaise of spirit as much as body. The sickness is passed along by breath and touch, with rapid contagion and consequent melancholy, only – and always – ending in death.”

“How long has this been your condition? And how did it begin?”

“Time’s slow dance has ceased to mean anything to us. But we were not so afflicted last year at this time. As for its origin, none can say; just that the first one who fell did so a fortnight after showing its first signs. Others have lived somewhat longer, but with the same eventual result.”

“Truly, yours is a tale of woe. There must be some way I can help you?”

“Only by departing. Warn others away from our village, and leave us to our fate before you too succumb.”

The cook was speechless. He had never encountered the like, but by all that was decent he could not relinquish a chance to offer aid and comfort when needed. He gazed at the speaker for long heartbeats; something in the eyes of the afflicted pyre-crew struck a chord of sympathetic familiarity.

“I shall stay and succor you,” he said finally. “And if Angrim the All-Limiter seeks to take me for it, I will at least die by living my ideals.”

* * *

The first thing Prosatio Silban asked for was a store of ingredients and a cauldron to cook them in. But not just any such cauldron.

“An heroic vessel for an heroic stew,” he said. “If we are to do this correctly, everything needs to be of epic proportions. We need everyone’s contribution, or the magik will not work.”

“We do not have such,” replied the man with whom he had first spoken, who turned out to be Foliolio Tazor, the village’s informal mayor. “We only cook for ourselves, and our pots and huts are too small to accomplish what you are proposing.”

“That may be part of your difficulty,” said Prosatio Silban. “Have you a blacksmith?”

“There is Potier Axam, but he is one of the lately afflicted. Still, I think he could be persuaded; his chief occupation at the moment is lugubrious sighing, and methinks he would welcome the distraction. His forge is ample enough, but we have naught in iron with which to build such a vessel.”

“You may well be surprised. We will need your ironwork, all of it: pots, skillets, utensils, swords, plowshares, tools. See that they are conveyed to the blacksmith. Now, as for what to cook in it…”

“But what good will any of this do? We will all die presently, all of us!”

“‘While life yet exists, the possibilities are endless,’” Prosatio Silban quoted. “And before your inevitable demise, surely everyone can spare a potato or two. A handful of greens. Some fish or crawdads from your creek or pond. An errant sheep or goat, either tame or wild…”

In such a small and death-diminished community, word quickly spread about “the mad stranger’s undertaking.” But while many feebly acquiesced, some few held out; they preferred to keep to themselves what little food they had and wait alone for their end. To these, Prosatio Silban was gently insistent, repeating what had become his axiom: “We need everyone’s contribution, or the magik will not work.”

Such was the case with Berrando Firor, who, at eighty-two years, was the village’s longest-lived and most obdurate inhabitant. “Never heard of such a thing,” he told Prosatio Silban. “Won’t work. Get out of my soup and let a person die in peace.”

The hardest part, it seemed to Prosatio Silban, was creating the mold for the cauldron.

“But Master Berrando, what have you to lose?” persisted the cook. “If you will die anyway, wouldn’t it be better to die among friends and in the comfort of helping a noble cause? What else have you done in your life that could be more heroic than simply donating some flour and a few carrots?”

It was a cogent argument, but – “Won’t work,” the old man repeated, closing his door to the astonished Prosatio Silban.

He had better luck with the blacksmith. Potier Axam received the proposal with what almost passed for gusto given his dilapidated state.

“Finally,” he said, rising from his bed with a cough. “Something to do. Worthier than all this sitting around for the hammer’s final fall. What exactly do you need from me?”

* * *

The hardest part, it seemed to Prosatio Silban, was creating the mold for the cauldron.

They – the blacksmith, the cook, the blacksmith’s apprentice and five curious and still-sturdy villagers – were standing in a field adjacent to the village, not used for much other than occasional archery practice. The rounding-up of ingredients was yet to begin, but there was nothing to cook them in – yet.

“I have everything I need to cast the cauldron,” Potier Axam told the party. “Thanks to our neighbors’ generosity, the iron itself was easy to acquire. I also have a good quantity of the other requisite metals and supplementary elements. But actually casting the cauldron? I have no form near large enough. So we will make one, and that will require some hard digging on our part. Let’s get to it, lads.” And so saying, he raised a pick high over his head and brought it down into the earth with a mighty heave.

The others joined in with weak but sincere enthusiasm. Soon, the ground was marked with an excavated circle two cubits deep and roughly a man-height in diameter. “This should be wide enough,” said the smith. “Let us now clear what we’ve dug.”

“Let us first seek some divine beneficence,” said Prosatio Silban, and they all bowed their heads.

“O Galien, Bringer of Life; Ghu, Lord of Applied Creativity; and Bohoran, Giver of Strength Where None is Felt; hear our plea and grant our boon. May You lighten our undertaking and its object as we seek to continue serving You, in health and happiness and purpose. Help us help You to manifest in this world,” said the cook.

“We affirm,” replied the gathered workers, and began clearing the circle.

* * *

As the cauldron neared completion, the neighboring space became a catch-all for an enormous pile of modest ingredients: colorful roots and tubers; alliums both sweet and pungent; leafy greens; beans of every variety; five kinds of tomatoes; rich-smelling sausages, hams and other cured meats; and almost the village’s entire stock of salt. “As a wise man once said, ‘Nothing makes something taste more like itself than salt,’” Prosatio Silban told the assembled villagers. “You have done well. It’s unfortunate that we had a holdout …”

“Wait,” croaked Berrando Firor, hobbling under the weight of a half-sack of carrots and onions and a clay pot containing the somewhat ample remains of his flour hoard. “Won’t need ‘em when I’m dead,” he said with a crooked grimace. “Besides, who ever heard of a stew without dumplings?”

The cook smiled back. “Now the magik can begin to work,” he said.

* * *

When making a stew, the first important part is searing the meat so that it maintains its juiciness throughout the long cooking process. One byproduct of this procedure is that its aroma sets the mouth to watering.

Obediently, they bowed their heads as Foliolio Tazor spoke softly for some minutes.

The massive, newly minted cauldron, decorated with votive images of Galien, Ghu and Bohoran, was suspended by an immense wooden and metal frame over a great pile of smoldering coals. Nearby was a large butcher’s block where the cook was engaged in chopping and other needed preparation. Between the two stations was a three-step platform enabling Prosatio Silban’s access to the vast cookpot. From time to time the cook would ascend to add something needed, and give the thick but liquescent mass a stir with a large wooden paddle. It wasn’t long before the curious villagers were drawn from their homes by the fetching fragrance, and gathered around Prosatio Silban’s makeshift kitchen.

“What are you using for broth?” asked one. “Stock? Blood? Wine?”

“Pure water from your creek,” Prosatio Silban replied. “That plus the sautéing meat and other ingredients will be all we need for flavor. And, of course, a generous measure of spices and herbs.”

“Why not add a keg of ale or stout?” offered another. “Livens up my own cooking.”

“I grant that it would make for an excellent savor,” said the cook. “But remember: this is meant to be revivifying, not soporific.”

“When will it be ready?” inquired a third.

“When it is cooked – and not a heartbeat before,” said Prosatio Silban, reaching for the salt with a mischievous grin.

* * *

“Before we eat,” Foliolio Tazor told the villagers, “let us thank the Flickering Gods for what they have given us.”

The villagers – all of them – were assembled in the cleared field by the cauldron; some sitting on blankets or cushions, others on what nature had given them. Everyone had something to eat on and with: a plate or bowl in wood, copper, or clay, and a fork or spoon likewise. Obediently, they bowed their heads as Foliolio Tazor spoke softly for some minutes.

“…and lastly, thank You for sending this cook, Your holy servant, in our time of need,” finished the quasi-mayor. He looked up with a wan smile. “Eat well and become well, friends.”

“We affirm,” said the assembly in one voice.

“We’ll see,” muttered Berrando Firor.

For some moments, all that could be heard was the clinking of utensils on vessels and the homey sounds of appreciative chewing. Then: “Mmmm.” “Tasty!” Well done, Master Cook.” “Thank you.” “Yes, thank you!”

Prosatio Silban bowed. “It is a pleasure to serve,” he said. “Thank you for enjoying my labors’ fruitions.”

There are quiet lulls of conversation that occur wherever good folk are gathered, and this feast was no exception. As bellies began to fill and spirits arose, that shared tranquility was eventually interrupted by quiet murmurs; then lively talk; and finally, robust exchanges punctuated by loud mirth.

One of the villagers raised her head, looking about with a quizzical expression as if realizing something for the first time. “It suddenly occurs to me,” she said, “that it has been too long since we did this, if we ever did. Ate together, I mean.”

“You’re right,” a man replied. “And do you know what? It feels … good.”

“Better than good,” the woman countered. “It feels healthy.”

Others soon joined in, voicing their concurrence: “Look! Saro’s getting her color back!” “My bone-aches have vanished!” “I have an appetite for the first time in forever!” “I feel I could outwrestle a cave-bear!” Some offered other sentiments: “Look at this awful place.” “It needs fixing-up.” “Yes – make it look like real people live here.” The villagers were laughing, crying, backslapping, embracing one other, raising grateful hands heavenward in relieved supplication.

Foliolio Tazor looked at the cook with what seemed to them both to be renewed eyes. “Master Cook! What means this speedy cure? What miracle have you wrought?”

“It was not me, and it was no miracle,” Prosatio Silban replied. “Anything shared could have served as well – communal song, or dance, or anything other – so long as it united you, got you out of your hovels into the sunlight, and knit you again to each other. Folk are not meant to endure elongated and ceaseless suffering, especially by themselves; they can even die from it. Your plague was a plague of the heart. And you knew this secret all along; all you needed was reminding.”

“You have given us new life. How can we repay you?”

The cook smiled broadly. “You already have. But if you wish to pay me further, please – don’t again forget this secret.”

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