Lou, the Prophet

Reproduced from Virginia Faulkner, ed, Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction1892-1912.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970, 535-40.

It had been a very trying summer to every one, and most of all to Lou. He had been inthe West for seven years, but he had never quite gotten over his homesickness for Denmark.Among the northern people who emigrate to the great west, only the children and the oldpeople ever long much for the lands they have left over the water. The men only know thatin this new land their plow runs across the field tearing up the fresh, warm earth, withnever a stone to stay its course. That if they dig and delve the land long enough, and ifthey are not compelled to mortgage it to keep body and soul together, some day it will betheirs, their very own. They are not like the southern people; they lose their love fortheir fatherland quicker and have less of sentiment about them. They have to think toomuch about how they shall get bread to care much what soil gives it to them. But amongeven the most blunted, mechanical people, the youths and the aged always have a touch ofromance in them.

Lou was only twenty-two; he had been but a boy when his family left Denmark, and hadnever ceased to remember it. He was a rather simple fellow, and was always considered lesspromising than his brothers; but last year he had taken up a claim of his own and made arough dugout upon it and he lived there all alone. His life was that of many another youngman in our country. He rose early in the morning, in the summer just before daybreak; inthe winter, long before. First he fed his stock, then himself, which was a much lessimportant matter. He ate the same food at dinner that he ate at breakfast, and the same atsupper that he ate at dinner. His bill of fare never changed the year round; bread,coffee, beans and sorghum molasses, sometimes a little salt pork. After breakfast heworked until dinner time, ate, and then worked again. He always went to bed soon after thesunset, for he was always tired, and it saved oil. Sometimes, on Sundays, he would go overhome after he had done his washing and house cleaning, and sometimes he hunted. His lifewas as sane and as uneventful as the life of his plow horses, and it was as hard andthankless. He was thrifty for a simple, thickheaded fellow, and in the spring he was tohave married Nelse Sorenson's daughter, but he had lost all his cattle during the winter,and was not so prosperous as he had hoped to be; so, instead she married her cousin, whohad an "eighty" of his own. That hurt Lou more than anyone ever dreamed.

A few weeks later his mother died. He had always loved his mother. She had been kind tohim and used to come over to see him sometimes, and shake up his hard bed for him, andsweep, and make his bread. She had a strong affection for the boy, he was her youngest,and she always felt sorry for him; she had danced a great deal before his birth, and anold woman in Denmark had told her that was the cause of the boy's weak head.

Perhaps the greatest calamity of all was the threatened loss of his corn crop. He hadbought a new corn planter on time that spring, and had intended that his corn should payfor it. Now, it looked as though he would not have corn enough to feed his horses. Unlessrain fell within the next two weeks, his entire crop would be ruined; it was half gonenow. All these things together were too much for poor Lou, and one morning he felt astrange loathing for the bread and sorghum which he usually ate as mechanically as heslept. He kept thinking about the strawberries he used to gather on the mountains afterthe snows were gone, and the cold water in the mountain streams. He felt hot someway, andwanted cold water. He had no well, and he hauled his water from a neighbor's well everySunday, and it got warm in the barrels those hot summer days. He worked at his haying allday; at night, when he was through feeding, he stood a long time by the pig stye with abasket on his arm. When the moon came up, he sighed restlessly and tore the buffalo peaflowers with his bare toes. After a while, he put his basket away, and went into his hot,close, little dugout. He did not sleep well, and he dreamed a horrible dream. He thoughthe saw the Devil and all his angels in the air holding back the rain clouds, and theyloosed all the damned in Hell, and they came, poor tortured things, and drank up wholeclouds of rain. Then he thought a strange light shone from the south, just over the riverbluffs, and the clouds parted, and Christ and all his angels were descending. They werecoming, coming, myriads and myriads of them, in a great blaze of glory. Then he feltsomething give way in his poor, weak head, and with a cry of pain he awoke. He layshuddering a long time in the dark, then got up and lit his lantern and took from theshelf his mother's Bible. It opened of itself at Revelation, and Lou began to read, slowlyindeed, for it was hard work for him. Page by page, he read those burning, blinding,blasting words, and they seemed to shrivel up his poor brain altogether. At last the bookslipped from his hands and he sank down upon his knees in prayer, and stayed so until thedull gray dawn stole over the land and he heard the pigs clamoring for their feed.

He worked about the place until noon, and then prayed and read again. So he went onseveral days, praying and reading and fasting, until he grew thin and haggard. Nature didnot comfort him any, he knew nothing about nature, he had never seen her; he had onlystared into a black plow furrow all his life. Before, he had only seen in the wide, greenlands and the open blue the possibilities of earning his bread; now, he only saw in them agreat world ready for the judgment, a funeral pyre ready for the torch.

One morning, he went over to the big prairie dog town, where several little Danish boysherded their fathers' cattle. The boys were very fond of Lou; he never teased them as theother men did, but used to help them with their cattle, and let them come over to hisdugout to make sorghum taffy. When they saw him coming, they ran to meet him and asked himwhere he had been all these days. He did not answer their questions, but said: "Comeinto the cave, I want to see you."

Some six or eight boys herded near the dog town every summer, and by their combinedefforts they had dug a cave in the side of a high bank. It was large enough to hold themall comfortably, and high enough to stand in. There the boys used to go when it rained orwhen it was cold in the fall. They followed Lou silently and sat down on the floor. Loustood up and looked tenderly down into the little faces before him. They were old-facedlittle fellows, though they were not over twelve or thirteen years old, hard work maturesboys quickly.

"Boys," he said earnestly, "I have found out why it don't rain, it'sbecause of the sins of the world. You don't know how wicked the world is, it's all bad,all, even Denmark. People have been sinning a long time, but they won't much longer. Godhas been watching and watching for thousands of years, and filling up the phials of wrath,and now he is going to pour out his vengeance and let Hell loose upon the world. He isburning up our corn now, and worse things will happen; for the sun shall be as sackcloth,and the moon shall be like blood, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the heavensshall part like a scroll, and the mountains shall be moved out of their places, and thegreat day of his wrath shall come, against which none may stand. Oh, boys! the floods andthe flames shall come down upon us together and the whole world shall perish." Loupaused for breath, and the little boys gazed at him in wonder. The sweat was running downhis haggard face, and his eyes were staring wildly. Presently, he resumed in a softertone, "Boys, if you want rain, there is only one way to get it, by prayer. The peopleof the world won't pray, perhaps if they did God would not hear them, for they are sowicked; but he will hear you, for you are little children and are likened unto the kingdomof heaven, and he loved ye."

Lou's haggard, unshaven face bent toward them and his blue eyes gazed at them withterrible earnestness.

"Show us how, Lou," said one little fellow in an awed whisper. Lou knelt downin the cave, his long, shaggy hair hung down over his face, and his voice trembled as hespoke:

"Oh God, they call thee many long names in thy book, thy prophets; but we are onlysimple folk, the boys are all little and I am weak headed ever since I was born,therefore, let us call thee Father, for thy other names are hard to remember. O Father, weare so thirsty, all the world is thirsty; the creeks are all dried up, and the river is solow that the fishes die and rot in it; the corn is almost gone; the hay is light; and eventhe little flowers are no more beautiful. O God! our corn may yet be saved. O, give usrain! Our corn means so much to us, if it fails, all our pigs and cattle will die, and weourselves come very near it; but if you do not send rain, O Father, and if the end isindeed come, be merciful to thy great, wicked world. They do many wrong things, but Ithink they forget thy word, for it is a long book to remember, and some are little andsome are born weak headed, like me, and some are born very strong headed, which is near asbad. Oh, forgive them their abominations in all the world, both in Denmark and here, forthe fire hurts so, O God! Amen."

The little boys knelt and each said a few blundering words. Outside, the sun shonebrightly and the cattle nibbled at the short, dry grass, and the hot wind blew through theshriveled corn; within the cave, they knelt as many another had knelt before them, some intemples, some in prison cells, some in the caves of earth, and One, indeed, in the garden,praying for the sin of the world.

The next day, Lou went to town, and prayed in the streets. When the people saw hisemaciated frame and wild eyes, and heard his wild words, they told the sheriff to do hisduty, the man must be mad. Then Lou ran away; he ran for miles, then walked and limped andstumbled on, until he reached the cave; there the boys found him in the morning. Theofficials hunted him for days, but he hid in the cave, and the little Danes kept hissecret well. They shared their dinners with him, and prayed with him all day long. Theyhad always liked him, but now they would have gone straight through fire for him, any oneof them, they almost worshipped him. He had about him that mysticism which always appealsso quickly to children. I have always thought that bear story which the Hebrews used totell their children very improbable. If it was true, then I have my doubts about theprophet; no one in the world will hoot at insincere and affected piety sooner than achild, but no one feels the true prophetic flame quicker, no one is more readily touchedby simple goodness. A very young child can tell a sincere man better than anyphrenologist.

One morning, he told the boys that he had had another "true dream." He wasnot going to die like other men, but God was going to take him to himself as he was. Theend of the world was close at hand, too very close. He prayed more than usual that day,and when they sat eating their dinner in the sunshine, he suddenly sprang to his feet andstared wildly south, crying, "See, see, it is the great light! the end comes!! andthey do not know it; they will keep on sinning, I must tell them, I must!"

"No, no, Lou, they will catch you; they are looking for you, you must notgo!"

"I must go, my boys; but first let me speak once more to you. Men would not heedme, or believe me, because my head is weak, but you have always believed in me, that Godhas revealed his word to me, and I will pray God to take you to himself quickly, for yeare worthy. Watch and pray always, boys, watch the light over the bluffs, it is breaking,breaking, and shall grow brighter. Goodbye, my boys, I must leave ye in the world yetawhile." He kissed them all tenderly and blessed them, and started south. He walkedat first, then he ran, faster and faster he went, all the while shouting at the top of hisvoice, "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!"

The police officers heard of it, and set out to find him. They hunted the country overand even dragged the river, but they never found him again, living or dead. It is thoughtthat he was drowned and the quicksands of the river sucked his body under. But the littleDane boys in our country firmly believe that he was translated like Enoch of old. Onstormy nights, when the great winds sweep down from the north they huddle together intheir beds and fancy that in the wind they still hear that wild cry, "The sword ofthe Lord and of Gideon."

First published in The Hesperian, XXII (October 15, 1892), 7-10.