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Christmas Story, by Guy de Maupassant

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Church

Dr. Bonenfant was looking in his memory, repeating in a low voice: “A Christmas memory? … A Christmas memory?”

And suddenly he exclaimed:

“But if I have one, and still a strange one; this is a fantastic story. I saw a miracle! Yes, ladies, a miracle on Christmas night.

It astonishes you to hear me speak thus, I who believe little to nothing. And yet I saw a miracle! I saw it, I said, saw with my own eyes seen what is called seen.

Was I surprised? not ; for if I do not believe in your beliefs, I believe in faith, and I know that it carries the mountains. I could quote many examples; but I would make you indignant, and also expose myself to the diminution of the effect of my history.

I confess, at first, that if I have not been convinced and converted by what I have seen, I have been at least very moved, and I will endeavor to tell you the thing naively, as I had a credulity of Auvergnat.

I was then a country doctor, living in the village of Rolleville, in Normandy.

The winter that year was terrible. By the end of November, the snows arrived after a week of frosts. You could see the great clouds coming from the north; and the white descent of the flakes began.

In one night the whole plain was buried.

The farms, isolated in their square courtyards, behind their curtains of tall trees, powdered with frost, seemed to fall asleep under the accumulation of this thick, light moss.

No sound passed through the immobile countryside. Only the ravens, in bands, described long scallops in the sky, searching for their lives unnecessarily, falling all together on the livid fields and pricking the snow of their large beaks.

Nothing could be heard but the vague and continuous slippage of this dust always falling.

This lasted eight full days, then the avalanche stopped. The earth had on its back a mantle, five feet thick.

And, during the next three weeks, a clear sky, like a blue crystal by day, and at night, all sown with stars that would have been believed to have frost, so rigorous was the vast space, stretched itself on the plain tablecloth , hard and shiny snow.

The plain, the hedges, the elms of the fences, all seemed dead, killed by the cold. Neither men nor beasts came out; only the chimneys of the cottages in a white shirt revealed the hidden life, by the thin streams of smoke rising straight into the icy air.

From time to time the trees could be heard to crack, as if their wooden limbs had broken under the bark; and, sometimes, a large branch detached itself and fell, the invincible frost petrifying the sap and breaking the fibers.

The dwellings, scattered here and there by the fields, seemed a hundred leagues distant from one another. We lived as we could. Alone, I tried to go to see my closest clients, exposing myself constantly to remain buried in some hollow.

I soon perceived that a mysterious terror was hovering over the country. Such a scourge, it was thought, was not natural. It was pretended that voices were heard at night, shrill whistles, and cries that passed.

These cries and whistles came undoubtedly from the emigrant birds traveling at dusk, and fleeing overwhelmingly towards the south. But try and make to listen of reason to panic-stricken people. A horror filled the minds and an extraordinary event was expected.

The forge of Father Vatinel was situated at the end of the hamlet of Epid, on the high road, now invisible and deserted. Or, as the people lacked bread, the blacksmith resolved to go to the village. He remained a few hours talking in the six houses which form the center of the country, took his bread and news, and a little of that fear spread over the country.

And he set out before nightfall.

Suddenly, as he passed along a hedge, he thought he saw an egg in the snow; yes, an egg laid there, all white as the rest of the world. He bent down, it was an egg indeed. Where did he came from? Which chicken had been able to leave the henhouse and come to lay eggs in this place? The blacksmith was surprised, he did not understand; but he picked up the egg and carried it to his wife.

“Here, mistress, here’s an egg that I found on the road!”

The woman nodded:

“An egg on the road? By this time, are you drunk, of course?”

“Not at all, mistress, it was even at the foot of a hedge, and still hot, not frozen. I put it on the stomach to not cool. You’ll eat it for your dinner.”

The egg was slipped into the pot, where the soup was simmering, and the smith began to relate what was said by the country.

The woman listened pale. “For sure I heard whistles the other night, even as they seemed to come from the fireplace.”

They sat down to table, ate the soup first, and then, while the husband stretched butter on his bread, the woman took the egg and looked at it with a suspicious eye.

“If there was anything in that egg?”

“What to be?”

“I do not know.”

“Come on, eat it, and do not be stupid.”

She opened the egg. It was like all eggs, and very fresh.

She began to eat it hesitatingly, tasting it, leaving it, taking it back. The husband said, “Well, what taste is this egg?”

She did not answer and she finished swallowing it; then, suddenly, she fixed her eyes on her man, frightened, stunned, raised her arms, twisted them and, convulsed from head to foot, rolled on the ground, uttering horrible cries.

All night she struggled in frightful spasms, shaken by frightful trembling, deformed by hideous convulsions. The blacksmith, incapable of holding her, was obliged to bind her.

And she screamed without rest, in an indefatigable voice:

“I have it in the body! I have it in the body!”

I was called the next day. I ordered all the known sedatives without obtaining any result. She was crazy.

Then, with an incredible rapidity, in spite of the obstacle of the high snows, the news, a strange news, ran from farm to farm: “The woman of the blacksmith is possessed!” And they came from everywhere without daring to enter the house ; They listened at a distance to her frightful cries, uttered in a voice so strong that they could not have been thought of by a human creature.

The priest of the village was forewarned. He was an old naive priest. He rushed into surplice as if to administer a dying man, and, extending his hands, pronounced the formulas of exorcism, while four men kept the foaming and twisted woman on a bed.

But the spirit was not cast out.

And Christmas arrived without time changing.

The morning before, the priest came to find me:

“I desire,” he said, “to have this unfortunate woman present at the service of that night. Perhaps God will do a miracle in his favor at the very hour when he was born of a woman .”

I replied to the priest:

“Absolutely, Father. If she is struck by the ceremony (and nothing is more propitious to move her), she can be saved without any other remedy.”

The old priest murmured:

“You are not a believer, Doctor, but help me, do you? Are you taking care to bring him?”

And I promised him my help.

Evening came, then night; and the bell of the church began to ring, throwing its plaintive voice across the dreary space, over the white and icy expanse of the snows.

Black beings came slowly, in groups, docile to the cry of brass of the bell-tower. The full moon illuminated with a bright and pale gleam the whole horizon, rendered the pale desolation of the fields more visible.

I took four sturdy men and went to the forge.

The possessed still yelled at her bed. She was properly dressed in spite of her desperate resistance, and she was carried off.

The church was now full of people, illuminated and cold; the singers uttered their monotonous notes; the snake snored; the little bell of the choirboy tinkled, regulating the movements of the faithful.

I locked up the woman and her guardians in the kitchen of the presbytery, and waited for the moment I thought favorable.

I choose the moment following communion. All the peasants, men and women, had received their God to weaken his rigor. A great silence was hovering as the priest finished the divine mystery.

Upon my order, the door was opened, and the four assistants brought the mad woman.

As soon as she saw the lights, the crowd on her knees, the chorus on fire, and the gilded tabernacle, she struggled with such vigor that she nearly escaped, and she uttered such sharp clamours that a shudder of fear passed through the church; all the heads rose; people fled.

She no longer had the form of a woman, clenched and twisted in our hands, her face contorted, her eyes mad.

She was dragged to the steps of the choir, and then held firmly on the floor.

The priest had risen; he was waiting. As soon as he saw her stopped, he took in his hands the monstrance girded with golden rays, with the white host in the middle, and, advancing a few steps, he raised it with his two arms stretched out above his head, presenting him to the frightened eyes of the demoniac.

She was still screaming, her eyes fixed on this radiant object.

And the priest remained so immobile that he would have been taken for a statue. And it lasted a long time, a long time.

The woman seemed to be seized with fear, fascinated; she gazed fixedly at the monstrance, still shaken by terrible tremors, but passing, and still shouting, but in a less heart-rending voice.

And it lasted a long time.

One would have said that she could no longer lower her eyes, that they were riveted on the host; She was merely moaning; and his stiffened body softened, sagged.

The whole crowd was prostrate, their foreheads on the ground.

The possessed now lowered her eyelids rapidly, then raised them immediately, as impotent to bear the sight of her God. She had fallen silent. And then suddenly I noticed that his eyes were closed. She was asleep sleepy, hypnotized, forgiveness! Conquered by the persistent contemplation of the monstrance with the golden rays, overwhelmed by the victorious Christ.

She was carried away, inert, while the priest was ascending to the altar.

The audience, upset, began the Te Deum of thanksgiving.

And the blacksmith’s wife slept forty hours in a row, then woke up without any memory of possession or deliverance.

This, madame, is the miracle I have seen.

Dr. Bonenfant was silent, then added in a vexed voice: “I have not been able to refuse to testify in writing.”

Translated by Nicolae Sfetcu

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