Breton fairy-tales tend to be of the morbid kind instead of light and pleasantly entertaining. Even though this story is from Brittany, it reminds me of some of the stories we were told as children, about treating the poor kindly. It was almost as if the poor were given special powers to make up for their hard life, powers that were usually denied to the rich and wise. I find it intriguing that the Breton tradition of treating beggars well purely for this reason echoes the Indian one … though the way the poor are generally treated in Asian countries nowadays is nothing short of shameful.
The Beggar’s Curse
There was once a peasant of the Foret du Laz who visited the Pardon of Rumengol. He was not noted for his good temper, and as he neared the Pardon he became very irritated by the beggars who lined the roadside, pleading for alms, a common enough sight at any Pardon.
He came across one particular beggar in a very sorry state, with sores, boils and ulcers covering his unwashed body; he smelled especially repulsive. The beggar whined for charity until, unable to bear it any longer, the peasant struck the beggar with his stick and rolled him into the ditch.
He may have been abhorrent, but still the beggar was a man. “May you wander to Rumengol for seven years,” he shouted, furious at being treated worse than an animal. “And on your return to your fireside may fresh trouble await you.”
The Pardon over, the peasant set out for home. But imagine his surprise when, on turning a sharp bend in the road, he found himself entering Rumengol once more. Disgusted at what he perceived as his own carelessness in taking the wrong path, he retraced his steps, yet, once more, found himself on the outskirts of the village.
He slept that night under a hedge, ready for his homeward journey the next day. But every path he took led him to Rumengol. Terrified, exhausted, he continued mechanically to walk, week after week, month after month. When his wooden sabots wore thin, he walked barefoot, the skin on his feet blistering. And still he walked. His clothes, in sun and rain, hung upon his body like sacks until they too gradually fell to pieces, leaving him with only his shirt. And still, in heat and cold, in sunshine and storm, he walked. Food was scarce and he grew famished, becoming lean and wild-eyed, a creature in despair. And still, in starvation, he walked. For seven long years he fled from Rumengol only to find himself, numerous times a day, on the point of re-entering it.
At the end of his strength, he sank one night into a ditch to sleep. When he awoke, the sweetest of thoughts came to his mind: “Today I am going home.”
Infused by a new spirit he went to wash his face in a brook then set off on his journey home. He was almost overcome with joy when he finally beheld once more the little cottage in the Foret du Laz he had left seven years ago. A group of people clustered around the door, and from within came the tiny wail of a newborn child.
“Away with you, tatterdemalion,” cried one of the people at the door when he tried to push past.
“What news from within?” asked the peasant, amazed at the rude reception.
“Mind your own business,” said another.
“For pity’s sake, tell me,” said the peasant, distraught.
“Since you are so anxious, the good-wife has just given birth to a child … a bonny boy.”
“But her husband?” cried the peasant.
“Is at her bedside.”
The peasant could contain himself no longer. “Fools,” he cried, “I am her husband. Let me go to her.” And he darted for the door.
“It is you who is the fool,” said the villager, restraining him. “Her first husband has been dead these seven years, killed by a wolf as he returned from the Pardon of Rumengol. He who is with her now is her second husband.”
In vain did the peasant tell them his pitiable story. They laughed at him. And finally drove him from the door.
“Is there any man more miserable than I?” wailed the peasant. Overcome with great sorrow, he walked into the forest, and was never seen nor heard of again.
Beware, therefore, the power of the poor when they are wrongfully spurned.
(‘Pardon’ is a typically Breton form of pilgrimage, and is a penitential ceremony.)