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Paul Kingsnorth

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Authors Summary

Paul Kingsnorth is an Orthodox English writer and thinker who lives in the west of Ireland. He is a former deputy-editor of The Ecologist and a co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project.

Kingsnorth's nonfiction writing tends to address macro themes like environmentalism, globalisation, and the challenges posed to humanity by civilisation level trends. His fiction tends to be mythological and multi-layered.

Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel, The Wake, won the 2014 Gordon Burn Prize and the Bookseller Book of the Year Award, as well as being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Folio Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. Beast, the second book in his Buckmaster Trilogy, was shortlisted for the RSL Encore Award 2017. He is also the author of the non-fiction books One No, Many Yeses, Real England, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Savage Gods, as well as two poetry collections, Kidland and Songs from the Blue River.

Title

"Purge Me With Hyssop" - A Short Story

Purge Me With Hyssop


Maria was a simple soul with her heart full of God, and this is why it was necessary that she should be destroyed. This is what Miroslav had been told by his commanding officer. It was not a question of making an example of her, the commanding officer had said. If she had been the last woman in the world, with nobody here to see her die, it would still be necessary that she should be destroyed.

Miroslav, standing before the officer, tying to remain upright as the snow came down and settled gently on his bare head, blinked and said nothing.

I sense that you don't understand this order, Miroslav, said the commanding officer. It is important that you not only carry out my orders, but understand them as well. This is the difference between the new world and the old. In the new world we must obey, of course we must, but not blindly. In the new world all are to understand, all are to be educated, Miroslav, not only the parasites at the top. Do you see that?

Miroslav nodded. He wanted to get on with it before the snow came on thicker. It looked like it would soon be coming on thicker.

She and her kind, continued the commanding officer, are the last refuge of the old superstition of the ages. Her simplicity is the simplicity of the steppe and the forest, not of the cities that are coming. She clings to her ignorance like an old shawl. It seems ruthless, yes, it seems cruel. But it is not cruel. Allowing people like Maria to walk into the world made by Man, still carrying this evil in her belly; that would be the real cruelty. And it would be a betrayal. A betrayal of the truth. It is too late now for these old lies, however fervently the people believe them. The times are too late.

What if they are not lies? Miroslav suddenly wanted to say in response. He flinched at the thought that had arisen. Where had it come from? Of course they were lies, he knew that. But memories came unbidden then, of his mother and grandmother in the smoke-curled church, lighting the thin candle and placing it before the icon of the Theotokos, and of his grandfather at home in the early morning, before the time when others arose, disturbed by young Miroslav during his metanyas, but continuing as if nothing in this profane world could come between him and his captain.

The commanding officer had looked at him then, as if sensing some doubt, some hesitation, and Miroslav had pulled himself together and stood up straighter, tugged his rifle in to his side. His feet were freezing. He had not been issued with boots, supposedly because of the class implications but actually because there were no boots now. There was not much of anything now, and not for the old reasons, but Miroslav knew that this would change as things progressed. The first task, the first and the hardest task, was to wipe out the remnants of the old, that the new might be built on the snow of the levelled earth.

The comanding officer was still talking, even as the snow grew deeper. He seemed carried away by the future he could see coming.

That she still believes the lies, the commanding officer went on, that her kind refuse to stop believing them, that they cannot even see their belief for what it is - this, you see, this is the crisis that can only be overcome through necessary violence. Sometimes violence is necessary. We may flinch from it, but it is necessary. The old corruptions, the old injustices, the old inequities - the world shudders beneath them, Miroslav. When you look at Maria, you may believe you see a simple young woman walking to church through the snow, but you do not see that. You believe you see that, because you too were conditioned by her world, by the old world. But you have seen beyond it, Miroslav, the revolution has gifted the new sight to you, and so you know as I do that when you see Maria walking to the church beneath the pines, what you are seeing is all the accretion of the centuries upon our backs. What you are seeing is the injustice, the poverty, all that we have lacked while the rich feasted - what you are seeing above all, Miroslav, is somebody who can make herself content with this. Somebody whose God can be content with this. Do you see? It is her contentment that condemns her, Miroslav. No revolutionary can be content until the revolution is done, until the world is washed clean.

Miroslav, still making an effort, his greatest effort, to stand to attention on his frozen feet, tried to focus on the words, but the words had stopped being words and become instead a wind, a storm rushing into his face, a great sound from the sea full of fear but with no shape or form. When the storm stopped he nodded, and tried his hardest to focus his gaze.

Good, said the commanding officer, then get it done. He turned on his heels and walked away, the snow clotting around the heels of his leather boots.

*

The snow was easing a little as Miroslav walked down to the village, his rifle over his shoulder, his feet still frozen. He walked more slowly than he probably ought to. Miroslav did not relish the violence, however necessary it might be. He had grown up with Maria. As a boy he had looked sideways at her in the church, her round, pale face by candlelight glowing like the moon in winter, and sometimes he had thought about a life with her, children, a small house in the woods away from the village, away from the others and their gossip, their small worlds, their small minds. He and Maria, he had once thought, maybe they could build a bigger world together. But then he would look more closely at her, and he would see that while he stared at her, willing her to turn and stare back, she had eyes only for the old priest. He would see that while he only shuffled his feet and waited for the farce of the liturgy to be over, she was transported by it. He didn't think that Maria would want to build a bigger world with him. She looked like she already had one.

Then the revolution came, and everything was different. Some men left the village and then came back in new uniforms, and they took the priest into the woods and nobody saw him again. Afterwards they closed the church and barred the door and outside they built a pyre and onto it they threw all the bibles in the village, and all the books and papers from the priest's house. God was dead, said the men in uniform; or rather, he had never lived, he had always been a lie, a tool of power, a means of control. There would be no control anymore. Now the people would be free. Now the people could rejoice.

The people did not rejoice though, not in Miroslav's village at least. The expressions on their faces as they watched the bibles burn were not the expressions the men wanted to see, and that seemed to make them angry. A few nights later, the church burned down. Nobody ever claimed responsibility, not even the men in their uniforms, some of whom seemed to look on the smoking ashes uneasily for many days after. All of these men had been in the church as boys too, standing with the rest of the villagers as the priest rattled by with the bells and incense. The world, thought Miroslav, was not washed clean so easily.

But God was dead now, and Miroslav had work to do. God had not, after all, done anything to protect his people or his priest or his books or his church, he thought, as he stepped carefully down the slope towards Maria's house. God had never done anything for the people, as far as he could see, other than blaming their crop failure on an excess of sin. The revolution, on the other hand, was already reorganising everything so that there would never be another crop failure, so that everyone would have enough to eat. There was no sin now, and soon there would be no hunger. What could God do to compete with that?

Involuntarily, then, Miroslav saw the expression on Maria's face in the church, all those years ago. He remembered that in some way, for a brief moment, it had seemed like she was not there at all. He shook his head slightly, shaking a small flurry of snow from his hair onto his shoulders.

No, he thought, no, that is not enough.

Maria had shared her small house with her mother, but her mother had passed over after the revolution, or possibly as a result of it. Miroslav didn't know the details. The old people in the village had had the hardest time with the changes, of course, which was only to be expected. They had had their time and now it was a new time, the best time to be alive, the time when the world was being made new. The process had begun, and Miroslav now was part of it. The forward motion, the impelling towards the great goal. That he should be born in such a time.

So Maria was in the house alone, and Miroslav was glad of this, though he would not have said it. He pushed open the door without knocking and Maria, who was squatting by the grate pushing flatcakes around in a griddle, looked up at him and smiled, as if he was an invited guest. The house was damp, dark, oddly still.

Miroslav, she said, my friend.

Maria.

The cakes are done. You will have one?

I'm not hungry.

Maria looked up at Miroslav with no expression that he could see upon her round face. She picked the flatcakes off the griddle one by one, hissing at the last as her fingers involuntarily touched the hot pan.

I am, she said. She took the plate to the rocking chair by the hearth and sat heavily in it. She lifted one of the cakes to her mouth and began to chew.

Miroslav, she said, you have a gun.

It's ... it's not ... This was all he found he could say. The rifle was slung over his shoulder. He had wanted to forget it was there, to unsee it, to let it rise away like the mist bands around the birches on autumn mornings. Now that he was here he saw that it was impossible, all of it. Maria, his task, the revolution, everything was impossible. There was a weight of inertia on the world. He did not believe that the planet turned the way they said it did. Everything was fixed like this, precisely like this, for all time. Maria in her chair, him standing with his gun by the door. They were statues and the world was frozen solid to its core.

Is it yours?

It belongs to the army ... to the people.

Why do you have a gun?

The revolution, Maria. It must be defended. The world is not a dolls' house. We have enemies.

The revolution, ah. Maria bit into another cake. He had forgotten how stupid she could be. She had been this way when they spoke as a child. Yes, she would say, to anything he asked; or, No, to the questions he wanted her to say yes to. Never anything else. That stupid, animal contentment. He saw it again now and it melted the world and the world began turning again.

Maria, he said, come for a walk with me.

A walk?

In the woods.

A walk in the woods? There it was again. Was she just going to repeat his words back to him?

It's a nice day. I would like to talk to you.

Maria, still chewing, looked Miroslav up and down, and then looked again at his rifle. She kept chewing, and Miroslav thought she would ignore him or refuse, and he wondered what he would do if she refused. But then she put the plate down on the floor by the chair and stood up.

I will get my shawl, she said. It's very cold. Very cold, Miroslav.

Outside, the snow had stopped falling, but it lay feet thick on the ground, as usual. It was frozen enough for them to make their way over it with relative ease, towards the birch bands that lined the forest edge. The woods were deep here, they went north for miles, but beyond gathering wood and occasionally trysting in the summer when parents and priests were elsewhere, with girls more willing than Maria, Miroslav had never gone far in them. Hunting, occasionally, had taken him further, but he was reluctant to take risks with the forest. There were things in there he had heard about, and he had no intention of seeing if they were any more than village stories.

There is a holy hermit, said Maria, as they walked. In the woods.

A hermit?

A holy hermit, Maria repeated, far off in the woods. Miroslav waited for her to volunteer more information, but she kept walking steadily, quietly through the snow, which was shallower now as the canopy closed in.

What kind of hermit? Where? said Miroslav, irritably. Every time Maria opened her mouth, he thought, she made his task easier.

In the woods. I don't know, said Maria. In a cave. He is a hermit. Nobody knows about him.

Then why mention it? thought Miroslav. What do I care? Why do you speak of hermits when you could be speaking words which could save your life? As this thought occurred to him, he wondered what words they could be. What did he want to hear from her? He wanted to hear something, he knew that. Perhaps if Maria had spoken of him. Of childhood. Of some future he could hold, some future in which she would smile at him and come down to where he walked and walk there too.

But Maria said nothing, only walked on ahead of him, steadily with her small bird steps on the frozen ground, which gave nothing to her as she passed. Her red shawl, her old black cap, the rags wrapped around her shoes for some small warmth. They were under the deep firs now. The snow was scarce here, the air was green and thick. Miroslav did not want to go much further. Suddenly, he could not walk anymore.

Stop here, he said.

Maria stopped and turned to him. They were in a small clearing. A patch of winter light drifted down between the umbrellas of fir. The trees were taller than Miroslav remembered. He felt like they were watching him, expecting something.

Miroslav, she said. What are we doing here? Miroslav noticed she had folded her arms across her chest. He unshouldered his rifle. He was suddenly a great, cold valley, and everything that strayed into him froze and died there. Every thought and every word and every good intention he had ever had froze and died there, without ever seeing the sun again.

We ... he said. He looked across at Maria. Say something, he thought. Say anything, you dumb bitch. Don't you know what will happen to you? Say something to save yourself. It's me, Miroslav. Speak!

Maria said nothing. She just stood there looking at him, stupidly. Miroslav made a show of examining his gun, sliding the stock up and down, checking that all was greased and ready, fiddling with parts he had not paid attention to before. He moved as slowly as he could.

We will all have to answer, said Maria. Miroslav looked up at her, sharply.

What? he said.

We will all have to answer, said Maria. To Him, at the end. You will have to answer, Miroslav. You will have to stand before Him and make an acccount of yourself. All that you have done, and not done. All of your life. You will have to make an account.

Miroslav spat onto the ground and stopped examining his gun. Did she know she was making this easier for him? Did she know that every time she opened her mouth the wrong words came out of it?

I answer to the people, he said. Turn around, Maria. Turn and look away from me.

Do you remember my father? said Maria, as she turned. Now she was looking away from him, into the firs, and here was her back again, here was what he had seen as he walked behind her into the trees. Her red shawl, her old black cap, the rags around her shoes. He stood facing Maria, but she did not face him. Was there something wrong with this? Was this cowardly, or was this a kindness? How was he to know?

When I was young, some thieves came to our fields and stole half of our corn, said Maria. We came out on the morning and we could see them making away with it, Miroslav. I thought my father would be angry, but he only said, well, they needed it more than me. God will provide.

And did God provide? asked Miroslav, sarcastically.

My father lived a long time, said Maria. I am still here. God always provides.

Miroslav shouldered the rifle.

God provides nothing, he said. He was angry now, there was some rage in him, roaring up the cold valley like a wind. God provides submission and stupidity, God keeps the poor down while the rich feast. God allows the thief to prosper and the poor man to hunger, and then he tells the poor man to be content with the theft. That is your God, Maria. He walks you through your whole life without even giving you shoes.

Miroslav flicked off the safety catch. Maria had her arms folded across her chest now, he thought, though he couldn't be sure.

Shoes, he said. You deserved shoes, Maria.

Miroslav, she said. There was some tone in her voice that had not been there before. She did not turn around.

Suddenly Miroslav knew that the whole universe was hinged around this moment. Everything in creation, everything that had been and was and would be, all of it revolved around what he was about to do. This was the furnace at the heart of things, this choice he had, this was the reason for all creation. The wind that roared up the cold valley, into the firs. He held all of creation in his hands, the hands that held his rifle. His hands, the actions of his hands, would determine its direction for eternity.

The snow began falling again. Miroslav began to blink, slowly and then rapidly. There was snow in his eyes. There must be snow in his eyes, because he could not see clearly.

The snow fell gently, silently, onto Maria's back, onto her red shawl, her black cap. She was shivering a little, he could see. It was colder now than it had been. In the small gap between the firs above them, a charcoal blackness had gathered.

Miroslav lowered his gun. Then he raised it again. The snow fell faster. He could barely see now. He could barely see anything. A white tornado of snow seemed to enclose them both, whipping, raging, rising and then falling. The individual flakes were whipped into his face with a stinging fury. His fingers were frozen.

The snow was covering everything now: the trees, the ground, their clothes, their heads, the gun.

Maria? he said. He could barely see her.

I am here, she said. Are you here? Are you still here, Miroslav, or have you gone away? Have you gone far away from us?

The cone of snow was still raging, but everything in the universe was entirely still. The tips of the firs were white with some ancient fire. Everything turned and nothing moved, Miroslav was at the heart of all time and all space, and the future of time and space would be determined by him, here, in this wood, in this raging snow, now. There was nothing else in any of the created worlds. He was the tip of the spear that the people had cast into the great void of eternity, in the hope that they might spear the ultimate prey.

Everything was clear now.

Miroslav pointed his gun at the back of Maria's head.

Maria, he said, I am here.

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