The first tremor hit just before dawn.
Oreste, unsure if he was dreaming, got out of bed and went to door to inspect.
Opening the door, his mutt, Fiocco, startled by the rumbling, escaped.
Oreste stood in his doorway, calling for his dog as the lights came on in the other homes. Then the second quake came, knocking Oreste to the floor and toppling most of his village in a matter of seconds.
When the fracas subsided, Oreste gathered himself and stepped outside to his village in dusty ruin. Luckily, his cottage was one of the few that was spared. There was dust and rubble and panic and screams of those believing they’d instantly lost loved ones, as well as the streams of terror and agony of those pinned inside the wreckage of their village.
Oreste stepped outside and into the horror. He wandered around the decimated village calling frantically for his lost dog as others pleaded for help and called out for their loved ones.
“Fiocco,” Oreste screamed as he meandered dreamily through the carnage. “Come to me, Fiocco.”
In the tacets between the annoying screams of agony and pleas for help, Oreste listened intently for his beloved dog.
In this wandering daze, Oreste was grabbed by the arm. It was his cousin, Ermanno.
“Forget your dog,” the anguished Ermanno told his cousin. “There are women and children and old men and women who need saving.”
Oreste pulled his arm from his cousin. He continued wandering about, calling and listening for his lost dog.
Oreste wandered for hours among the rubble and muffled wailing from his neighbors. Until nightfall he wandered among the bruised, dead and bloody, calling for Fiocco.
Oreste went home that night, distraught that his dog may never return. Throughout the night, Oreste was haunted by the sound of his villagers digging through the rubble and the screams and cries of agony of those finding their loves ones dead. He heard the screams and cries of agony of those still trapped and injured. But all he could think of was his dog, Fiocco – wishing he might hear its bark piercing the horrors of the night. He prayed for Fiocco’s scartch at his door to illuminate all the shadowy horrors of his village in ruins.
In the morning, just before dawn, there was a knock on Oreste’s door. He opened it. It was Ermanno, holding the crushed carcass of his cousin’s mutt in his arms.
“We found him in the rubble,” the grimy Ermanno said. “There is nothing to be done. Now, please, won’t you help us?”
Oreste looked out his door to see his fellow villagers still digging through the rubble. And he could still hear the moans of those trapped underneath and within.
Oreste took his dog, stepped back inside and closed the door.
The next morning there was another knock. It was his cousin Ermanno again.
“You must help,” Ermanno pleaded. “People are suffering.”
“And I am grieving,” Oreste said. “For the loss of my Fiocco.”
“To Hell with you,” Ermanno protested. “And to Hell with your feelings and grief. What of all the others who are suffering? Please, cousin, just take a step outside to see.”
Oreste, still in his doorway, went into his pocket. He gave his cousin some coins.
“What is this?” Ermanno asked.
“For bread. Send some boy to another village for bread so that you and the rest may be nourished for your searching. And come again tomorrow, and I will give you more coins from my savings.”
Ermanno threw the coins inside Oreste’s cottage. He then turned his back on his cousin.
In the years following the calamity, Oreste noticed a marked change in the behavior of his villagers toward him.
Orestes was now poor, having lost his shop in the disaster and it seemed nobody was interested in employing him or lending him the money to open another shop.
And he noticed the shoddy quality of the repairs to his boots and clothes. He noticed how the milk he bought was often spoiled and the meat was always close to rotten.
Once, Oreste asked the butcher why he always received the worst cuts of meat. The butcher replied there was a list for those receiving the best and freshest cuts of meat, and Oreste wasn’t on it. Inquiring how he might get on the list, the butcher said, “I’m sorry. But the list is presently full.”
And the same happened when it came to needed repairs to his cottage. The men hired to perform the repairs either performed shoddy work or, once promising to do the work, they failed to show.
It felt as though Oreste’s life was going to ruins. Before the disaster, Oreste felt successful. He was even considered a catch among the village women. Now, none would spare him a glance.
Lonely, poor, malnourished and desperate, Oreste decided to consult the village’s holy man for guidance out of his predicament.
Upon meeting the cleric, Oreste said, “I feel I have been cursed.”
“Cursed by what?” the holy man asked.
“Perhaps this village. Perhaps they have banded together and solicited some practitioner of witchcraft to put a spell on me.”
“I believe you have brought this curse upon yourself,” the cleric said. “You are living in a Hell of your own making.”
“How?” Oreste asked.
“Remember when this village needed you, and you weren’t there?”
“Yes,” Oreste said “In my grief, I was stricken into inaction from the loss of my dog. Still, I remember offering my cousin money to purchase bread for the searchers, so they might remain nourished. I offered my help, but my cousin refused my offering.”
“We know about your offering,” the cleric said. “Just as we know your inaction wasn’t due to grief, rather, due to your self-centeredness.”
“Then why have I been forsaken?” Oreste asked. “When I offered support in the form of money from which the village may have purchased bread.”
“You cannot smell your own wickedness?” the holy man asked.
“No,” Oreste said.
“Yet, anyone else does. This is your curse, Oreste.”
“I am a noble man,” Oreste protested. “As noble as any other, if not more.”
“Then tell me,” the cleric said. “If the village were to stuffer another calamity as it did a few years ago, what would you do differently today?”
“I’d offer a few more coins. Perhaps the first offering wasn’t enough.”
“Amidst all the pain and suffering, you would only offer money?”
“Money is very important,” Oreste said.
“Yes. But money is not everything. Granted, to some men, money is everything. But not for most.”
“Coins are something,” Oreste insisted. “You act as though I’ve done nothing or would do nothing.”
“You have the reputation of a man who doesn’t like getting his hands dirty,” the holy man said. “And it seems you think you can buy your way out of doing any of the necessary labor of assisting your fellow man. Only through deeds do you gain the good graces of your fellow man. Deeds. Not coins. Do you understand?”
“I already labored for my coins,” Orestes said. “My coins came to me by way of my labor. So, when I offered my coins to my cousin Ermanno, I was, in essence, offering him my labor. I was, in essence, offering him the dirt on my hands.”
“Labor and deeds are not the same thing,” the cleric insisted.
“I cannot see a difference,” Oreste said.
“That is because your wickedness has blinded you,” the cleric said. “This is a shame. So tell me, why did you come here?”
“Advice,” Orestes said. “Assistance.”
“I believe you are a lost cause,” the holy man said.
“Can I pay you?” Oreste asked.
Oreste reached into his pocket. He offered the cleric a handful of coins.
“What’s this?” the cleric asked.
“For prayers. Can’t you pray for me? Make things better for me?”
“No,” the priest said. “I will not.”
“But it is a tidy sum. I am unemployed. I am hungry. I have always been a frugal man. For years since the disaster, I have saved what little I can, and this is all there is,” Oreste said.
Again, the priest refused.
“I have saved and saved – even forsaken meals in my saving. I have sacrificed in order to save. And for what? Only to desire to become a better person, which you now deny me,” Oreste accused.
“You are a true knave,” the cleric said. “For you have no desire to be better, only to have your suffering alleviated.”
“Please, accept. If not for you, then keep it as an offering to the church.”
Again, the holy man refused, saying, “No. I will not allow you to cleanse yourself so easily. Instead, if you seek salvation, you might start by doing something decent.”
“I prefer to pay for my salvation,” Oreste said. “Since true decency may not be within me.”
“I understand, as should you, that genuinely noble deeds require getting your hands dirty, which is something you seem to have a natural distaste for,” the cleric said.
“You mean labor?” Oreste asked.
“Yes,” the cleric said. “Labor in a sense. But I am afraid you still do not understand the difference between labor and deeds. Labor is something expected, like a custom. Labor is something done out of custom and courtesy as well as for survival. Whereas deeds are things – often laborious – done from empathy or true respect.”
“As I told you, my labor and sacrifices are already in these coins.”
The priest took Oreste’s coins, then threw them back at Oreste’s feet.
“You may leave now,” the holy man commanded.
“I need salvation,” Oreste begged.
“You have no soul,” the cleric replied. “For salvation you must have empathy. And, for empathy, you must possess a soul, which can never be bought or bartered for. Empathy is something felt. Felt and then acted upon. And coins are no substitute for the thing that makes us human, which is a soul.”
“I have empathy,” Oreste said. “I loved my dog Fiocco. I still miss him. In losing my pet, I have suffered like all the rest. Will you tell me an animal does not possess a soul?”
“Perhaps it does. But it is not the same. The soul of an animal is to human as slave is to master. Or as child is to parent. That is why we treat animals as slaves or children. We treat them condescendingly. We patronize them, since their souls are different. You, Oreste, would do far more for an animal than for most men, suggesting you have little empathy for mankind in his suffering.”
“Empathy for mankind is difficult,” Orestes confessed.
“Yes. Just like hard labor,” the holy man said. “Since men are more difficult to control, command and manipulate than children or dogs or men born with feeble minds or minds gone soft with old age, handling the average man is a strain. It is far more difficult for the animal, like the child, to see through our falseness and pretenses. But with men, what we attempt to obscure is more plain to see.”
“Then I must assume you see it in me.”
“In spades,” the holy man said.
Orestes collected his scattered coins and left the holy man with a newfound hatred for the ministry. A newfound hatred as deep and dark as that he felt for the village that had so callously discarded him too.
Such was Oreste’s curse.