The Country Teacher
by Zoltán Komor
The villagers replaced the clapper with a dead cat, so when the carillon begins to play at noon, instead of a chime you can hear a kind of dull whoop, as the animal’s body hits the cold metal bell over and over again. Blood splatters onto the church attic’s boards, oozes down between the cracks.
So it’s that special day again: the country teacher will be the dinner guest in every house of the village. The yokels feed him once a month; stuff him properly, so they can have some peace for another thirty days.
They open the door to the old school’s cellar, and lead out a grayfaced, bare-boned man—the chalk dust painting his hair all white. As he scratches the village walls with his tired eyes, the cold wind floats his leaky coat around his slim body. A few grey teeth fall from his mouth as he tries to say something.
“Oh c’mon! We don’t have all day!” the crowd shouts furiously, kicking away the bloody teeth in the snow. “We hope you are hungry enough, because we really outdid ourselves this time!”
Then they begin to laugh, and shepherd him into the first kitchen, where they sit the man down on the ground, putting the dog’s bowl in front of him, throwing some cooked nails into the slimy dish.
“Now eat!” whoops a fat, clean-faced woman, and her husband—wearing a gigantic fake moustache—grabs an old violin and screws out a few old notes from the instrument, singing: “I cooked peas, I salted them well, I also seasoned them with paprika, Abele, babble, run!”
“Thank you!” mumbles the teacher with nails in his mouth, as they help him take off his coat. They carry it out into the court and begin to beat the school’s ancient dust from the cloth. Dark mist rises, and the dogs in the street begin to cough.
Small birds perch on the teacher’s ribs, chirping happily as the man puts the nails into his mouth, one by one. When he finishes his meal, they bring back his coat, hang it on him as if he were nothing but a clothes rack. Then they kick him to another house, where a new bowl awaits him. This time a stiff fish stares from the dirty plate.
“Oh… I really love fish,” admits the teacher, and begins to eat, while a puny woman claps her hands, yelling: “Look at that, what an ugly bug crawled into my kitchen! Ugly bug, ugly bug!”
“Ugly bug” thinks the teacher. “Yeah, that’s me.” And yet he could still remember the glorious old times, when he was treated as a lord in this village. He was dined in quite another way just a few months ago. He sees himself back in those days: the reverend teacher highstepping over the streets with a giant leash in his hands, leading the naked children. Sometimes he yelled command words—sine, cosine,
and so on—and then the kids lined up and began to sing for the joy of the villagers.
“May we dust your coat, Sir?” asked the women, crawling before his feet, their breasts sweeping the dirt.
“Of course, ladies!” nodded the teacher, and he watched as woman carried away his coat on a red pillow as if it were a treasure.
The ghosts of old bell chimes still echoed in his skull. Sometimes the teacher shrank down to the size of a thumb and crawled into his pupils’ rooms in the middle of the night. There he whispered arithmetic into the youngsters’ ears, throwing small books into the canals, burning them in their skull-ovens, and when he found them naughty, he beat their smooth cheeks with a matchstick, yelling: “I’m going make a man out of you!”
“Speed it up!” burps a fat lady now, poking the teacher’s side with a fly-swatter. “I sharpened pencils all morning, just to get you some nice shavings! Gobbling them all up is the least you could do!”
The teacher stuffs the dingy wood shavings into his mouth, swallows them wildly, then shows the woman his empty dish.
“All right, get going then! I don’t want to see you till next month!” grins the lady. Then she whistles and three children appear in the kitchen.
They jump onto the teacher’s back, and begin to poke his ribs with their sharp elbows.
“Giddy up, you bastard!” they cry, while riding the teacher to the next house, snorting, neighing. Lice jump from his hair onto the snow.
Afternoon arrives. The villagers carry the teacher over the streets, holding him up and yelling: “He has had a bellyful, now he can trumpet his math! But what for? You cannot eat numbers!”
The younger ones throw snowballs at the teacher, and an old man spits at him. His saliva freezes into an ice bullet in midair. It hits the captive’s skin and leaves a bruise.
“The mind needs to be fed too!” cries the teacher. “Don’t you understand? Literature is food for the soul; mathematics is nutrition for the brain!”
“Sure, sure!” They pat his side. “Nice speech! And of course you expect us to give you food for it, don’t you?”
“Two and two makes ten, twenty and eight makes fifty-two!” guffaws a man, galloping up and down in the street, beating his own ass. Hoes dance on the string of the horizon. Somewhere in a distant classroom rats scurry around the dusty desks. A rotten apple sits on a table, cigarette stubs crawl in it as if they were worms.
Soon, the trial begins: the judge is a massive horse, with an old wig on his head. His heavy hooves knock about the room like a remorseless gavel.
“I’m waiting for your plea, dear, honored teacher sir!” the horse taunts the skinny man, who begins to stammer: “Dear fellow villagers… I suspect that you are now under some kind of evil spell; maybe the black magic of the celestial horses has affected you, because this whole procedure is more bitter than I can imagine! But please, come to your senses! Knowledge warms the soul! We’re not learning just for school, but for life! An empty head is actually heavier than one that is full of knowledge! It is so heavy: believe me, it will pull you down beneath the ground!”
But the villagers pay no attention. They just neigh, getting on all fours and racing around the bench.
“Enough! Order in the court!” the old judge brays at them. Jets of flame rise from his nose.
The teacher looks around and notices what he hadn’t seen until now.
All the villagers, all of his accusers, are just children dressed up in adult clothes. How did he not spot those glued-on moustaches, those bras stuffed with socks?
“Oh God! Where are your parents?” he whimpers. “No wonder this is such a topsy-turvy world!”
“They’re all at home!” they answer. “The celestial horses put them to sleep in their bathtubs, and they’re not gonna wake up till tomorrow!”
But they can say no more. The knocking of the hooves silences them.
The horse on the bench neighs and passes judgment. Reading from his own hooves he says: “Because you are teaching useless things, and you yourself are useless, I must treat you as a tramp! Here’s my verdict!”
“Stuff his pillow with protractors!” the crowd yells impatiently, clapping their hands, driving even more lice from the teacher. “Beat a triangle into his spine! Take down that ugly bug!”
A little girl arrives with a basket full of fly-swatters; she tosses them to the crowd, as if they were flowers.
“Oh, I’ve got a much better idea!” laughs the judge. “Let’s chime the carillon with him, I say!” His hooves knock once more, and the villagers grab the convict and carry him to the church. There they replace the dead cat with the teacher.
“You’re going regret this!” screams the skinny captive. “You’re going to miss me when you have to count the nails for your coffins! Adieu, adieu! I’m invited to a harvest in Heaven’s library!”
He can say no more. The assembly begins to ring the bell, and his skull cracks as it hits the metal lip of the bell over and over. Hollow thuds vibrate through the village. Then there’s only sullen silence. Blood and pieces of brain ooze between the church attic’s boards. After some time a few children arrive. They have hidden away from the celestial horses this morning and spent the whole day in antique closets. They have come with little knives and slices of bread in their tiny hands, catching red raindrops on their bread, greasing the bloody slush on the slices with their knives. They eat in silence, then begin to sing so loudly they scare away the bats:
So the clock is ticking, the tick-tock goes
From the little elves hammering inside,
If the clock has stopped and is not running,
The little elves are sleeping and not hammering.
Sine, cosine and cotangent
Three is thirty’s ten percent.
Zoltán Komor is from Hungary and writes surreal short stories. Some of his works have been translated to English, and published in Caliban Online, Thrice Fiction, The Phantom Drift, Bizarro Central, etc. Komor has three short story collections published by Burning Bulb Publishing, Morbid Books and StrangeHouse Books.