L’Ergot Bleu, Part I.


Story Martin Marks     Illustration Jim Gaylord
1

CLAVICEPS PURPURAE GROW during the wet springtime, dotting the summer crop with blackened, curved kernels – virtually indistinguishable from the usual sun-baked seeds appearing in every year’s harvest. A letter to the French Royal Academie des Sciences first documented these grains in 1676. The next year, John Ray, a British naturalist, made a brief observation of the same phenomenon.

But the villagers of a small town in Languedoc finished their summer harvest without knowledge of such things.  They picked their grain unaware that Philip de Valois had ignored Edward of England’s claim to the French throne, or that outnumbered English bowmen in Crecy had just defeated Philip VI’s far superior army, or that the Hundred Years War raged within their borders.

For the most part, the village didn’t know about the outside world. They didn’t need to. Every family had a home, and every home had a front yard. They lived in what could be called a benign oligarchy, a decentralized community where every member had their function and purpose, with no member outranking another. For reasons lost to time, most of the population was male. Some have hypothesized that homocentric fraternal ordering regulated the community. However, what few females there were in the community still served as equals. Male and female villagers alike farmed the communal fields in the morning and took to pastimes – singing, dancing, and other assorted merriments – in the afternoon. What little organizational ranking they had was led by a village elder. All the villagers trusted this village elder to make the larger decisions for the benefit of the whole. The villagers gave him a diminutive honorific as a title, roughly translating to the word “Papa.” Though he was leader, there was no confiscation of property, no forcible labor. The lazy could remain lazy and still get fed; in fact, the villagers used these traits for the nomenclature of their members. It was the combination of the American dream and the Communist ideal, some four centuries before America and some six centuries before Communism, and some three centuries before the blackened grains would be discovered in John Ray’s laboratory.

The village’s domiciles were arranged in no particular order; they sprouted out at random, blending naturally into the landscape. Each house was more or less the same, though some natural variations appeared in the roof colors of each abode. And had the village not been located in fourteenth century Languedoc France, one could quite easily have mistaken the place for a socialist Levittown, save for the fact that the buildings stood less than twenty centimeters tall and were constructed of toadstools.

Indeed, the villagers themselves had certain physical characteristics that made them unique; all the villagers had cerulean skin, and the tallest – called “Hefty” on account of his physical abilities – stood only eleven centimeters tall. Because of these physical differences, the villagers chose an honorific for the entire village, the word itself creeping into the common vocabulary to describe all things good and true. They called themselves Smurfs.

And, indeed, the Smurf village had once been a bastion for all things good and true. They farmed the land, raised crops, worked, celebrated, and feasted together. And so, when the last day of the summer harvest crept up upon Smurf Village, no Smurf was without the work of the field. Vanity, Brainy, Grumpy, Hefty, and Papa Smurf led details in the field to collect the wheat and bring it back to the toadstool where they stored the grain. It was Lazy Smurf’s job to stir the grain after it had been deposited. But as with most matters, Lazy Smurf was just too lazy. He spent the entirety of the morning asleep in the makeshift silo, only waking when the rest of the village returned from the field and dumped large quantities of grain on top of him. Sweat dripped from the returning Smurfs’ brows as they assembled in the village square for the noonday meal. They each washed their hands and faces in a bucket constructed of a squirrel-husked acorn, then took their places at several tables and waited for Papa Smurf to say the benediction.

Papa lifted his bowl of porridge. “I just wanted to thank each and every Smurf for a job well done. Year after year, this harvest has taken place in the Village, securing our place during the fall and winter months. And year after year, we seem to be better and better prepared for the grueling months ahead. You did a fine job, Smurfs. And with Lazy Smurf no longer working in the fields, we’ve harvested our grain in record time! So eat up, and enjoy the fruits of your labor! But don’t eat too much, for tonight is the Great Smurf Feast, to be held in honor of today’s great harvest.”

A cheer went up through the crowd. Then the meal began, proceeding as most other meals in the village did. Clumsy Smurf dropped his bowl several times while Dreamy Smurf imagined that the meal was a lavish feast of a game hen bigger than his body; Farmer Smurf talked about crop production while Handy Smurf ate with one hand while fixing a clock with the other; Vanity Smurf looked in his mirror while Hefty Smurf tried to lift one of the tables; Harmony Smurf sang, Painter Smurf painted, Poet Smurf poesied. Greedy Smurf sat next to Cook Smurf and eyed his food. “Are you going to eat that?” he asked.

“Me?” Cook Smurf said. “Why, I’d be happy if I never saw another piece of rye bread for the rest of my life!” And before Cook Smurf could say anything further, Greedy had gulped up Cook’s entire loaf of bread.

At the main table, Brainy Smurf talked in a loud, nasal voice, pushing his glasses up his nose as often as he could. “The first day of autumn will be the 12th day of October. This year, it’s the 12th day of October. Most certainly,” opined Brainy Smurf.

Papa Smurf sat at the end of the table, listening to this logic. The moon had been setting in the Northeastern hemisphere, the tides – though the ocean was nowhere near – had probably been especially high, and the temperature had spiked on the 11th of June, thereby indicating that the autumn weather would begin three months and a day later. Papa Smurf nodded, wiping his hands across his blue belly. He rubbed his beard and said, “Brainy, some times I think you’ve got too much brains!”

Everyone laughed uproariously, though nobody found the joke particularly humorous. In fact, not everyone was sure that it was a joke, but they laughed anyway just in case it was. That is, everybody laughed except Lazy Smurf, who had fallen asleep at the table. Papa Smurf eyed him closely.

“What is to be done about Lazy?” Brainy asked, pointing to the slovenliest member of their society, hunched over and napping quietly next to his porridge.

“For once, he seems to be working harder than the rest of us!” Papa said, taking slow purposeful spoonfuls of the last of his porridge.

“But he—,” Brainy said.

Papa stood. “He’s been working so hard lately that he doesn’t even have the energy to eat!”

“All I can say,” Cook yelled from the bakery, “Is that he’s doing a far better job than Greedy was doing at stirring the wheat. With Greedy, I think we were losing more grain than we were taking in.”

The villagers laughed again, though most found this joke less funny than the last.

“Good job, Lazy Smurf!” Papa said, patting the sleeping villager on his back. All Lazy did was turn a bit and mutter something.

When the villagers finished with their noontime meal, they went home for their noontime naps. Lazy mumbled something about “working more,” and climbed back to the top of the grain heap and went to bed. Greedy Smurf, unsatisfied with his double portion of bread, helped himself to the table scraps and then moved on to raiding Cook’s pantry. He then returned home, walking through the village square and up through the outskirts to his red and yellow roofed toadstool bordering the forest. He dozed fitfully in his four-poster bed, thinking about that evening’s feast of radishes as big as his head and fillet of game-bird.

And then, a sharp tingling overtook his legs. The tingling wasn’t particularly bad. His feet had probably just fallen asleep. Greedy jumped up from the bed and walked around the room. But nothing seemed to help. Then, the pains began. At first, he thought he had eaten too much, his belly being seized by the cramps that met most of his overeating. But the pain became more intense. Greedy grabbed the posters of his bed, squeezing hard whenever it became too much to bear. He tried to scream, but every time he opened his mouth, it felt like a knife was cutting through his little blue stomach and every time his heart beat, the pain pulsed through his little blue veins. Tears started trickling down from his face as the pain spread over his entire stomach. A mist of cold sweat covered his belly. His body convulsed, shaking the bed, as if lightening were passing up and down his spine. Then, Greedy felt faint and cold, and just when he thought he couldn’t bear it any longer, when the pain would be too much for his little body to take, it stopped. He waited, breathed lightly, expecting another round to start at anytime. But nothing happened.

Simultaneously, at the other end of the village, Smurfette had just woken up from her nap and was sitting at her dressing table brushing her hair with a nettle-comb. She had purposefully set up the mirror so it had an unfettered view of the two windows at either side of the door. That way, she could catch a glimpse of whatever admiring Smurf had decided to pay their respects that day. She was on her ninety-ninth stroke of the right side of her hair when she noticed that the blue sky had turned to black and that, in fact, the sky wasn’t black but that a giant raven was peeking its head through the window.

Smurfette screamed. Her dressing table tipped over as she scrambled under the bed to escape. After a few minutes, she peeked her head out from under her bed. The raven had gone.

Smurfette and Greedy arrived at Papa Smurf’s toadstool at the same time, each yelling the cry “Papa Smurf! Papa Smurf!” that had beckoned him from his hut so many times in the past. “Smurfs, what is it?” Papa asked, patting them on the shoulders.

Greedy Smurf still clutched his stomach, convinced that the cramps would start up again at any minute. “I had the most dreadful aches! First, I couldn’t feel my feet. Then, my stomach felt like it had needles going through it.”

Papa Smurf let out a hearty laugh. “We’ll have none of this faking, Greedy. Back to your toadstool!”

“But these pains—,”

“Just get yourself to bed!”

“And Papa Smurf,” Smurfette started. “I saw a giant raven at my window.”

“But Brainy fixed the raven problem months ago. There aren’t any in this part of the forest any longer.”

“But I—,”

“I think you’re just tired from all the harvesting. Bed rest, for both of you! And that’s an order!”

Greedy and Smurfette left Papa’s home and returned to their respective beds. Back at his toadstool, Greedy removed his white boots and looked at his feet. His toes, though proportionally big for a Smurf, appeared puffy and swollen. He kicked them against the side of the bed. Still, he couldn’t feel anything. But Papa Smurf was probably right. He had overeaten, he’d had these cramps before. In a cold shiver, Greedy fell asleep, dreaming not of Cook Smurf’s blackberry pies and crabapple turnovers, but instead wishing that the pain would go away.

Smurfette returned to her home as well. Rather than folding into bed, as Papa suggested, Smurfette went back to her mirror and started brushing her hair. What if it had been a real raven and not just her imagination? Papa Smurf couldn’t know for certain that Brainy had made all of the ravens go away. And who knows what Brainy was up to, with his potions and gadgets that never seemed to work correctly. But Brainy had always liked Smurfette. He was always one of the first people at her window, always ducking and peaking through whenever he thought Smurfette wasn’t paying attention. Smurfette finished brushing her hair and pretended to ignore Hefty Smurf, who had now taken his place beneath her window. She had become adept at identifying the Smurfs’ affections, largely through the little red hearts that floated up into the air whenever she stood near any of them. But she tried to ignore it, most of the time, just as she was trying to ignore that her hair alternated between feeling lighter and heavier that day. With the brush, she pulled at her golden locks as hard as she could, and for a moment, her hair floated like a balloon lost in the sky. Her high-heeled white shoes plopped to the floor, and she felt the hem of her dress. It, too, felt lighter that day, as if it too would float up into the sky. She took off her dress and threw it into the air. In slow motion, it sputtered for a while and then fell to the floor. She ran round the room, seeing if she herself could float. She jumped across her bed. Her head felt woozy and light. Motes of dust started to trickle through the window. Hefty Smurf had collapsed outside. The Raven. Brainy. It was Brainy. She ran back to her bed, stripped the sheets from her bed, and wore them as a cape, swinging around and around the room. She was, after all, a raven herself, capable of lifting an entire toadstool with one single grasp of her talons.

When Hefty Smurf regained consciousness outside, he peaked into Smurfette’s window again, and saw her dressed in her tattered bed sheet, carrying a flowerpot around the room, chanting in a distant singsongy voice, “Brainy, Brainy, Brainy—”

“Papa Smurf!” Hefty said as he crashed through Papa’s front door. Their leader was standing in the center of the room, talking to Nosy and Slouchy.

“In a minute, Hefty,” Papa said, patting Hefty on the back. “I’ve just appointed Nosy and Slouchy as Sentry Smurfs. They’re going to guard Greedy’s toadstool to make sure he doesn’t steal any of the food for the feast.”

“But Papa Smurf, Smurfette was acting really strange!”

Papa Smurf just as he went to his work desk, where various potions bubbled and boiled into glass beakers and test tubes. “Not to worry. Smurfette’s just tired. Now go rest up for the feast this evening!”

But Hefty did worry. He ran right from Papa Smurf’s over to Brainy’s toadstool.

“You say she was wearing her bed-sheets and carrying around a flower pot?” Brainy asked in disbelief. “Well, I’m sure I can come up with a potion or something to help her—,”

“It wasn’t just that,” Hefty said.

“What?”

“She was also saying your name—, Over and over again—,”

Brainy’s heart skipped a beat. Could this possibly be the moment he had dreamed for, when Smurfette would make her choice amongst the entire village and pick him?

Brainy patted his compatriot on the back. “You go along, Hefty Smurf. Papa was right. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Having shoved Hefty out the door, Brainy went to his side cabinet. Searching through various bottles and potions he had been storing for a rainy day, he finally found it. In a heart shaped bottle, corked with the stem of a rose, was the potion he had been saving for the day he found out that Smurfette held even the remotest interest in him. He uncorked it and took a whiff. The smell of roses and verbena, of hyssop oil and lavender dew wafted through the room. He recorked it tightly and ran through the village, making sure that nobody saw him as he went to Smurfette’s toadstool.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Leave a comment

Filed under Stories//

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s