Gabe knocked on the door of the Bollix family farmhouse. Angela’s friend Sally answered the door.
“Gabe, welcome. Is everything okay? How is your family?”
Gabe smiled, thinking he had come to ask the same questions. “We’re okay. Do you need any food?” Gabe held out his offering of warm soup and crackers.
Sally reached out and took the jars and napkin. “Thank you, Gabe. My mother is sick, and I’m taking care of my brothers and sisters myself. We have our harvest stored up here if you need some food, but this meal will help me. I appreciate it.”
“If you could spare some food for us, we could really use it.”
“Of course.” Sally helped him home with bags of potatoes and carrots.
“Thank you so much,” Gabe said, expressing his gratitude. “We’ll be sure to use some of this to make food for other families as well.”
“I’m glad to help. Thanks for coming, Gabe. I’m glad you came to check on us.” Sally headed back into her home and closed the door.
Gabe’s parents were pleased with Gabe’s first attempt at helping and didn’t stop him from going out again. Gabe approached the next house and knocked on the door while balancing soup and crackers in one hand.
A small boy opened the door. Gabe asked where his mother and father were. He just stared at Gabe not answering. He still made no sound when Gabe entered the house to look around. “Hello?” Gabe called repeatedly, shivering in the chill of the house. The little boy tagged along as Gabe went in search of someone, anyone in the house.
Gabe found a room with a woman lying in bed with a baby. He stood frozen, not knowing if he should enter. Gabe continued calling out, but he received no answer. He looked again at the little boy and asked, “Is this your mother?” The boy nodded. “Where is your father?” The boy only shook his head no.
Gabe swallowed hard, hoping that didn’t mean the boy’s father was dead. Is his mother alive? He looked once more at the still bodies in the room and swallowed hard again. Grimacing, he moved haltingly across the room to the bed. He called out his timid greeting again. There was no response. He tried one last time, and the mother stirred and mumbled.
Gabe backed away to the room entrance. “I brought some food.” Gabe felt foolish saying the words, but he had no idea what to do. He looked at the little boy and added. “I’ll keep your little boy with me until you are better.” The woman gave Gabe no recognition. Gabe was at a loss and stood there in silence.
Gabe shivered again and came to his senses. He quickly started a fire in the fireplace and taking the boy by the hand, left the house. The boy made no objection to following Gabe home, and Mother recognized him immediately when Gabe entered the inn.
Everyone agreed something had to be done. Mother wanted to help the woman, but she didn’t want to risk getting sick. Angela and Father, immune from having been sick, went together to take back the broth and see how they could help. It didn’t take them long to discover that the woman was very ill and the baby was dead. Father had the morose chore of burying her baby.
The little boy remained with Mother as Gabe went to the next farmhouse. This time he was met by shouts to go away. Gabe’s enthusiasm for helping was waning, and he carried on only out of his love for the King and his desire to please him.
At the next farmhouse, he was greeted by the matriarch of the family. “My name is Emily. I would be grateful if you would help us.”
She told Gabe how their youngest son had died from the virus, and John, their only other son, was now in bed with the fiendish fever. She was concerned her husband was trying to work too hard when he himself was recovering from illness.
“We are reliant on John for so much,” his mother confessed. “We would be so thankful if you could spare a bit of time to help some.” Gabe lent his services in chopping wood and milking cows before heading to the next farm.
At the next home, he carried water and moved a mattress. Some of the farmers gave Gabe food for his own family, but at some homes he wasn’t welcome at all.
To go to the shopkeepers’ homes, he borrowed a cart from the Bollix family to carry Angela’s soup pot. He pulled the cart slowly over the road to the Square. At first glance, he thought that all the shops in the Square were closed, but as he walked along one row, he saw the village doctor through a window. He was sitting with his head in his hands.
Gabe pushed open the door, and the doctor quickly looked up like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He cleared his throat and asked Gabe how he could help him.
“Actually, I came to help,” Gabe answered. “Do you need food?” Gabe pointed to the pot.
“Yes, thank you. It’s impossible to buy any food these days.” The doctor found a bowl, and Gabe ladled in the potato soup which Angela had prepared from Sally’s gift. Gabe handed him a cracker and apologized there wasn’t more.
“No, it’s wonderful,” the doctor insisted. “It’s been a tough few weeks for me. I’m afraid you caught me hiding out. Everyone thinks the Square is empty. I just wanted a moment’s rest.”
Gabe smiled and nodded. “I should go see if I can find anyone else needing food.”
“That’s very good of you,” the doctor said in farewell.
Gabe didn’t reply and pulled open the door. He looked back at the doctor, who had resumed the position Gabe had found him in, slumped over with his head in his hands. Gabe looked at him sadly and then pushed on across the Square.
Door to door like a desperate salesman, Gabe offered his soup until the pot was scooped clean and dry. Even without the soup, he continued to offer help and to ask what people needed. He told some he would try to return the next day with more food.
He eventually came to a row of tall, fine houses. He knocked on the door of one of the beautiful homes. A servant opened the door and curtly asked Gabe his business. He offered help meekly, as he’d done at so many other homes, but his proffer was met with a gruff reply.
“The good doctor has servants to help him and a stock room full of food and supplies. He doesn’t need help from someone like you.” He shut the door in Gabe’s face. Gabe stepped back and shook his head in confusion. He backed away and decided it was time to return home.
That night Gabe shared his mattress on the floor with the neighbor boy. His mother had been brought over to the inn as well and was settled into one of the empty guest rooms where she was recovering from her illness and the shock of losing her husband and baby.
When morning came, Angela prepared more soup and crackers, and Gabe returned as promised to the homes on the far side of the Square. The inn quickly became known as a place of refuge and help. Over the next few weeks as the virus took its final toll on the village, people would sometimes make their way to the inn, looking for food, shelter or a helping hand. Everyone who came found all three.
As winter’s sharp edge softened and spring breezes started to blow across the village, hopes began to rise that the wind was sweeping the virus away. Slowly, life began returning to the village. Windows, shuttered for weeks, opened to air out the stale homes. Villagers breathed easy again and fear was disappearing along with the winter frosts.
Gabe sloshed through the mud at the base of the mountain on his way again to meet with the King. He would finally ask his burning question.
“Why?” Gabe was sitting at the King’s feet, talking with him about the plague of sickness that had paralyzed the village. “Why did the whole village suffer? Why did my family get sick, and I didn’t?”
The King looked sympathetically at Gabe. He knew he couldn’t comprehend the full answer, but he wanted to help him understand what he could.
“Did the virus harm your family?” The King put the question to Gabe.
Gabe didn’t answer right away. His sisters throwing up seemed like being harmed, but now he knew they were no worse off than before. He also knew that Angela was allowed to help others because of her immunity and that since her illness, a sort of quietness had come over her. She didn’t always have an answer ready; it made her seem more gentle. “I guess not,” he ventured to answer.
“Did the virus harm the village?” The King looked kindly at his pupil.
Gabe was sure the answer was yes. “It did harm the village. They say close to two hundred people died. Many were children. That’s harm.”
“Did the village deserve the harm that came to it?” The King’s eyes were serious.
Gabe didn’t know how to answer that one. He thought of his neighbor’s lifeless baby and replied, “How could a little baby deserve to be killed? It didn’t even know right from wrong. How could it deserve to be harmed?”
“Not the baby, Gabe. The village. Did the village deserve the harm that came to it?”
Gabe shook his head. “I don’t know. I know the village doesn’t follow your laws. Does that mean the villagers deserve to be harmed?”
“What does my law say is the penalty for not obeying it?” The King forced Gabe to look directly into his eyes.
Gabe thought through all he had been taught and knew the consequences of disobedience were great. “Just about everything that could go wrong is a penalty: not having enough food, sickness, being killed, drought and fierce weather in the village.”
The King nodded. “I know you don’t fully understand why the village has to suffer the penalty and not just the individual, but the individual matters too. I knew and told you that you would not catch the illness, and maybe those children who died were being spared something worse. Remember that I’m always just. I am the only one who really knows what judgments and punishments are right and necessary. And never forget my song. I love the village. The villagers need to know that things are not all right the way they are.”
Gabe nodded and felt like he understood a little better, except for one more thing.
“How do you do it? How do you judge what people are doing from here? How do you punish those not obeying your law from your throne room? How do you control something like a sickness?” Gabe’s question multiplied into many on his tongue.
The King gently replied, “That’s not something I can explain, but you can find comfort in knowing that however I do it, I can.”
Gabe nodded and knew the King was right. Some things about the King were just too mysterious for someone like him to understand.