By: John F Zurn
Uriel Fox entered the town of Providence in the late afternoon. The small community was surrounded by forests with a small river running past the town on its way to the sea. A worn-out trail led to another village about twenty miles away called Quietville, but the two towns distrusted each other. Because of their mutual animosity, the towns might as well have been a thousand miles apart.
When Uriel hiked in from the north, he had no idea about the unspoken hatred of the two cities, however he observed something unusual. Almost everyone in Providence seemed to have sustained some kind of injury. Some citizens wore bandages on their hands and arms, while others had casts and braces. Some individuals even sat in wheelchairs or walked with the help of crutches. No one seemed cheerful enough to wave or acknowledge Uriel’s greetings. After staying in the hotel for a couple of days, Uriel decided to enter the local pub hoping to find citizens open to conversation.
When Uriel sat down on a stool in the pub, he realized that everyone there also appeared to have been hurt in some way. Uriel turned to the bartender and asked softly, “Why is everyone in this town suffering some injury?”
The bartender gave a tentative smile and then replied. “The people aren’t suffering despite their appearance.”
“I can see these people are suffering because they all have injuries and wear bandages.” Uriel replied carefully.
“That’s where you’re wrong, stranger,” the bartender answered assertively now.
“Then why did they all seek medical attention?” Uriel persisted.
The bartender sighed. “Citizens of this town do not have the capacity to feel pain. When they experience some kind of accident, they don’t suffer physical pain, but they still must bind their wounds. If they don’t they’ll get gangrene, lose a body part or even die.”
Uriel thought for a moment and then said, “What a boon it would be to feel no physical pain!”
A patron at a bar stool next to Uriel suddenly burst out laughing. “We don’t feel pain, but we still get injured, and mostly we don’t realize it.”
Suddenly as if on cue, the bartender grabbed a cracked bar glass and his hand began to bleed without him knowing it, so he continued chatting with Uriel. Uriel pointed it out to him, “Sir, you cut your hand.”
“Oh, yeah,” the bartender answered causally. “I better wrap it!”
Uriel then felt agitated. “I can’t believe you. How is it possible for you not to feel pain?”
“It’s been with us for quite some time,” the patron next to Uriel explained. “I almost lost my hand at the saw mill. You’ve been staring at my mangled hand. We must always pay close attention and be exceedingly careful in everything we do. Just yesterday, a friend stayed too long in the water while swimming. He now has hypothermia. His son put him to bed as soon as he discovered his father in the river.”
Uriel began to suspect that there might be some truth in the assertion of the citizens of Providence. Nevertheless, he needed proof for such an outlandish claim. So he finished his drink and stepped outside. As he gazed down the street, Uriel noticed more citizens with crutches, wheelchairs and bandages.
Suddenly, a terrible notion assailed him. Could it be possible that the curse, or whatever it was, could affect him too? He shook his head discounting his irrational fear. He knew curses represented naive superstitions. Oddly, almost immediately, this theory seemed to be tested. Uriel’s fingers on his right hand had become slightly swollen. But how? He had only a few drinks at the bar.
Then a passerby on the street answered Uriel’s unspoken question, “You should be more careful when you enter a building. It looks like you smashed your fingers against a door jam. Remember, if you don’t respect the curse, then the curse won’t respect you.”
“What curse?” Uriel asked again impatiently.
“This community,” the passerby began, “has been visited by a curse for several years now. We don’t suffer from physical ailments but we feel the effects. Do you remember smashing your fingers?”
Uriel still felt incredulous. Nevertheless, his fingers had proven to be swollen. Then another realization struck Uriel. In the town of Providence, he would need to be careful, so he didn’t continue to get hurt. He would need to consider every moment and movement in order to stay safe and to keep others safe as well. To further his knowledge of the phenomena, Uriel decided to inquire how often the citizens hurt themselves and how serious the consequences were.
Fox knocked on a number of doors in town until finally a man on crutches answered. The dejected adult invited Uriel inside, and Uriel noticed almost no furniture, pictures or rugs. He also could hear the faint cries of a young boy calling out from the bedroom. Uriel followed the man to the boy’s sleeping quarters where he witnessed a child completely paralyzed from the waist down.
“My son,” the father whimpered. “My son stumbled off a cliff near the river, but he thought he simply slid down. By the time he realized his leg had been broken, he contracted a virus or bacteria. That’s why he stays in bed, so he won’t be hurt again.”
Uriel left the home recognizing he couldn’t stay or do anything to help the family. Yet, he did feel more worried than ever. With no sensitivity to pain, he could sustain a fatal injury and not become aware of it until death approached. Still, he couldn’t simply leave the village because he might have some communicable disease. In general, Uriel didn’t feel inclined to abandon an entire village experiencing despair.
Trying to discern the truth, Uriel naively believed that perhaps he’d fallen asleep and he happened to be dreaming. The curse, the odd characters, and the human injuries seemed too strange to be real. Uriel attempted to wake up, but he realized that he couldn’t be dreaming since the whole crisis appeared to be too vivid with no time shifts. Uriel now realized that he should investigate further. Yet, when he persisted with his inner monologue, he bumped into someone knocking her to the ground. The woman didn’t comprehend that she now had a gash on her forehead until Uriel pointed it out. The woman felt her forehead, examined the blood and then simply walked away with an indignant look on her face.
Now Uriel had several problems. He knew he had to be much more care full around others than he had formerly believed. He also wanted to take his own safety more seriously as well. Second, Uriel didn’t believe for a moment that Providence could be cursed, but perhaps some disease or environmental influence contributed to their plight.
Then Uriel received a lucky break. One morning as he trudged down the forest trail, a few miles from Providence, he found a faded sign that read Quietville eighteen miles. He wondered if Quietville might have the same strange symptoms as the citizens of Providence. For Uriel, eighteen miles was merely equivalent to a long walk, so he reached Quietville after hiking for only a short while. When Uriel approached the town at last, the citizens all seemed free of injuries. Only a few seemed to exhibit any signs of physical damage at all. If the towns seemed to be so close, how could their situations be so utterly different? The scientist in Uriel Fox began to seek out differences between Quietville and Providence. Could this difference have something to do with be the river?
Uriel strolled through Quietville until he reached a local bar. He asked the bartender about Providence. “Have you observed,” Uriel began. “that Providence has a problem with injures?”
“Yeah,” the bartender retorted. “They’re cursed. Nobody has gone there for a long time. Besides, we’ve got enough of our own troubles.”
Uriel felt more inquisitive, “Does your town use the river for drinking water?”
The bartender smile arrogantly. “Are you kidding me? We pump water from three town wells on the other side of town near the forest. Why do you think we’d drink river water when we know that the animals won’t even drink from it?”
Uriel seemed to stumble upon a possible solution to Providence’s “evil curse.” Now he wanted to test his theory. But he wasn’t sure exactly how to do it. Then, if Uriel actual found the solution for certain, he could persuade the Providence community. However, he did worry whether Providence would easily give up beliefs they had clung to for years.
Uriel also felt concerned about his own time spent in Providence and its ill effects on him. Perhaps the effects of the contamination were irreversible. Regardless, Uriel left Quietville and returned to Providence the next morning. He made up his mind not to drink the water.
Later that afternoon, Uriel knew his first task. He grabbed a rock near the forest trail and smashed his elbow with all his strength. Nothing. He felt no pain even though his elbow seemed to swell up almost instantly. Disappointed, but with no intention of giving in to fear, Uriel attempted to figure out the best way to deal with the river. Since the people deeply believed in the curse, telling the citizens of Providence the truth, wouldn’t be productive. Instead, Uriel wished to keep all the citizens from using the river for anything. He finally came up the idea of mucking up the river, so it would be too murky to use. Explosives could do the job, so Uriel attempted to acquire them.
The town stores of Providence provided all the explosives and charges that Uriel required. That night, Uriel went to work planting the explosives all along the river. Within an hour, the explosives went off and the entire river near Providence proved to be contaminated. It clearly was unusable for a while.
But despite Uriel’s stealth, several citizens witnessed Uriel setting off the dynamite. In addition the local merchants, of course, felt that Uriel couldn’t really need so many explosives, so why did he purchase them? Before long, Uriel had been locked up in the jail, and as he suspected, the town couldn’t figure out why Uriel committed such a heinous act.
Now the proud citizens of Providence would be required to beg for water from Quietville. At first, the mayor of Quietville refused to help, but after careful reflection, he decided to provide Providence with water for two months. Now the stage was set. Either Uriel Fox would become a hero or be cast in the role villain depending on the result.
During the following months, the villagers of Providence drank well water and gazed mournfully at their tainted river. When the two months were over, Uriel believed the time was right, so he rammed his foot against the cell wall with all his strength. Then he let out a blood curdling scream. His pain response had returned. The guard then entered the cell to find out what was happening, and Uriel knocked him in the head. The guard yelled as well and seemed irate, but he soon realized that Uriel had given him the sensation of pain.
After the guard let Uriel out of the jail cell, some people realized something important had just happened, so they entered the street near the jail. Before long, the guard had explained what had happened, and residents commenced whacking each other in order to feel the pain response. Soon, thereafter, scores of men and women appeared and created a melee by smacking each other and experiencing pain, some for the first time.
Meanwhile, Uriel couldn’t help but remember the young boy in bed, paralyzed and isolated. Sure enough, Uriel saw the young boy and his father walking down the street, both in pain but looking much better. Sadly, it still took some time for the Providence population to understand that the “curse” of their village was actually caused by the contamination of the river. The river had caused their sorrow and misfortune not their superstitious curse.
Uriel tried to be more direct to reassure the community. “The river is poison. It’s contaminated. If you continue to drink it, your nervous systems will again be affected, and you will not be able to feel pain.
Then the Mayor of the village and the village leaders finally seemed to understand. They felt impressed by Uriel’s integrity and devotion. It took a lot of courage to blow up the river because he understood the consequences. He risked everything. The mayor looked at Uriel then addressed the crowd, “We all need to experience pain to protect ourselves. The river has some virus or bacteria that block that pain. Without pain our minds and bodies would eventually break down and become useless. Pain keeps the body from destroying itself.”
Soon after Uriel’s speech, he slipped out of the village and headed down the forest trail. He felt certain that Providence could recover. However, he also understood that superstitions can be powerful forces, and if the citizens forgot the truth, they might simply return to the river believing it to be a valuable water source. Worse yet, the citizens of Providence might also grow weary of the experience of suffering. Some might remember the era of painless existence and wish to return to it. If they remembered the power of the river, Uriel realized that remained a real possibility.
John F Zurn has earned an M.A. in English from Western Illinois University and spent much of his career as a school teacher. In addition, he has worked at several developmental training centers, where he taught employment readiness skills to mentally challenged teenagers and adults. Now retired, he continues to write and publish poems and stories. As one of seven children, his experiences growing up continue to help inspire his art and influence his life.