Boże Ciało - from Reymont's "The Peasants" (Chłopi)
Corpus Christi, like the former days, rose serene and splendid, but remarkably sultry and still. Ever since dawn, the sun had been blazing pitilessly; the air was so parched that all the leaves drooped; the corn bowed earthward, faint and limp; the sand burned the bare feet like hot embers, and great drops of resin came trickling out of the walls.
This heat was really a visitation, but the people troubled little about it, plunged as they were in their preparations for the service. The girls appointed to bear the feretories* and shrines and pictures in the procession ran like mad from cabin to cabin to try on their robes and comb their hair, while their elders were adorning the altars as fast as the could--at the miller's, outside the priest's (instead of a the Voyt's), and before Boryna's cabin, where Hanka with her household had been working hard ever since the peep of day.
The were also the first to have done the work, and so artistically that everyone admired it even more than the miller's altar.
It was indeed finer. In front of the porch there stood a sort of little chapel, made of interwoven birch-boughs, covered with pieces of woolen cloth, striped in many a hue; whilst inside, on a platform, rose an altar with white napery and fine linen, embellished with tapers and flowers in pots, to which Yuzka had stuck various patterns in gilt paper to adorn them.
There were hung above the altar a large-sized painting of our Lady, and several smaller ones on either side. To enhance the effect of the whole, they had suspended over the altar a cage containing a blackbird that Nastka had brought.
From the very gate a lane had been made of fir-branches, alternating with birch-boughs, planted and neatly tumped with yellow sand; and the sanded path had been sprinkled over with sedges.
Yuzka had brought whole armfuls of cornflowers, lark-spurs and field vetches, with which she wreathed images, candlesticks, and whatever else could be wreathed, even strewing flowers all over the ground before the altar. The cabin too came in for its share: walls and windows were drowned in verdure, and waving sedges stuck all along the top of the roof.
Everybody was hard at work, except Yagna alone, who early in the morning had slipped out of the hut, and was not seen any more that day.
So they were the first to be ready, but not before the sun shone well over the village, and the clatter of the carts coming in from the other hamlets began to increase.
Very hurriedly they made ready for church.
Vitek alone was to remain in the enclosure; for swarms of children came pressing in to admire the altar and whistle to the blackbird. He tried to keep them at a distance with a bough, but it would not do. So he loosed his stork, that came on stealthily, prodding and thrusting at their bare legs with its sharp beak, and made them disperse with screams.
They started all together, just as the Mass-bell began to tinkle. Yuzka went in front, dressed all in white, book in hand, and with bows of bright red to her shoes.
"What do you think of this, Vitek?" she had asked, spinning on her heel before him.
You're as fair to see as the whitest goose!" he answered in admiration.
"Your boot knows as much about it as you do! But Hanka says no one in the village is clad so well," she said, stamping and pulling down her short skirt.
"Your red knees can be seen through the skirt, as the flesh of a goose through the feathers!"
"Silly lad! -- But," she added, in a warning whisper, "hide your stork away! The priest will come with the procession, and might see and know it again."
"Oh, but how fine the mistress looks! For all the world like a turkey-cock!" he murmured in ecstasy, gazing after them down the road; and then, mindful of Yuzka's warning, he shut the stork up in the potato-pit, and let out Lapa to watch over the altar: after which he betook himself to Matthais, lying as usual in the orchard.
The village was deserted. In the church, the service had commenced. The priest came out for Mass, the organ pealed; and, the sermon ended, all the bells were set ringing till they frightened the doves off the roofs. Then the people poured out, streaming through the great door, with banners dipping forward, tapers flaming, holy pictures borne by white-clad maidens, and, at last, the red canopy over the priest, who bore the golden Monstrance.
They formed in a procession, with a long lane, edged with flickering lights, cut through the dense throng; and his Reverence intoned:
"Lo, at Thy gate I stand, O Lord!"
to which all the multitude answered, thundering in unison--on great Heaven-reaching voice!--
"My soul hath waited on Thy word."
Singing they moved forward, with a great crush about the narrow lich-gate; for the concourse was immense, consisting of the whole parish. All the folk of all the Manors were present: several Squires supported the priest on either side, or walked close by, taper in hand. The canopy was borne aloft by husbandmen of the parish: only (perhaps on account of the recent disgrace) none of them men of Lipka.
From the the churchyard shadow to the open space beyond, white, dazzling, broiling hot, where the burning sun made the eyes to blink with its living fires, on they walked to the sound of the whole tolling belfry. The chants rose up, the incense-smoke soared forth along with the clouds of dust; lights scintillated, and bright showers of flowery petals fell continually, scattered at the feet of his Reverence.
The crowd surged along, heavy-footed, chanting mightily, like to a noisy many-coloured stream; and in its midst--a boat in the rapid, current, as it were--floated the crimson canopy. And the holy banners waved and towed beside the pictures and statues of saints, veiled in gauze and gay with flowers.
Onwards they moved, dense, serried, squeezed, heads close to heads, and each one singing for all he was worth sang with him the glory of the Lord--as if those tall lime-trees, those dark alders, those waters sparkling in the light, those tapering birches, those lowly orchards and green fields and vague distances beyond human ken--all and everything--were adding to the hymn their hearty and joyful accompaniment; and the notes rolled and flew through the heat-laden air, up to the radiant sky, up to the sun!
That choral song stirred the very leaves upon the trees, and brought the last blossom-petals floating down!
The priest read the first Gospel at Boryna's altar, and, after a short rest, went forward to the miller's.
It is now still hotter than before, and fast growing unbearably hot. Every throat was dry as dust; a whitish haze had come over the sun; athwart the bright sky long filmy streaks were floating; the overheated air made the outlines of things quiver and wave as though seen through boiling water. --A storm was at hand.
The procession had lasted a full hour; the priest was drenched with perspiration and as red as a beetroot; yet he continued to officiate with grave dignity, going from altar to altar, listening to the various Gospels sung and intoning the various hymns.
There were moments when the people ceased from chanting; and then the larks took up the song, and the continual cry, Cuckoo, Cuckoo! rang out. Meanwhile, and neverendingly the great bells boomed.
And thought the chants recommenced, and the peasants roared with stentorian throats, and the women's thin shrill voices joined in with the pipings of the children, and the rippling music of the tiny jingling bells carried in the procession, and the loud footsteps upon the trampled earth: still the voice of that grand tolling was loud all the time--pure, high--with deep golden notes that reached to Heaven, full of joy and gladness and sonorous beauty; as if hammers, beating on the sounding disk of the sun, were striking out of it those mighty notes, making the whole country-side toss and ring again!
The came the return to church, and a long service within doors: organ pealing loud, voices lifted up!
At last the congregation dispersed: when on a sudden the sky grew dark, the rolling of thunder resounded afar, a dry blasting wind came in whirling gusts, the trees lashed each other, and volumes of dust filled the air.
* A receptacle to hold the relics of saints; a reliquary.
Vol.3 SPRING, pp. 270-274; Translated from the original Polish by Michael H. Dzierwicki, Reader of English Literature at the University of Cracow