Summer came too early to Abyzon that year. The winter had been mild and the people thanked God. But then the spring rains forgot to fall, and the earth turned barren. Planting and replanting, only to watch every shoot wither and die, cast a pall over the farming village. Sins were repented, promises were made, belts were tightened. But summer stretched far into spring, and visited death upon the crops and livestock. No one could remember a hotter June, or a July anything like this one.
In the midst of the drought, Jacob continued to work. But when he walked through the square, he found that the usual chorus of bemused expressions and flippant remarks had been replaced by outright hatred.
An old woman bumped into him on his way to the creek. “There will be nothing for the rest of us if you use the water for your paints.”
“I don’t need much water,” Jacob said.
A man across the street glared at him. “There are no more berries for your dyes! Nothing will grow as it is—you cannot take water from us, too.”
Jacob said nothing and continued walking, holding two clay jars close to him.
When he arrived at the stream, he saw the cause of their taunts and scowls. There was barely a trickle left. He returned to the village and headed for the old well by the church. A line of villagers surrounded the holy building. Father Raphael stood watch over the bucket as it dipped and rose.
After nearly an hour, Jacob’s turn had come.
“Jacob, my son, this well is almost dried up. It must be saved for us or the animals. Nothing for your paints, I’m afraid.”
Jacob looked at the man and said nothing. He slowly lowered the bucket and then brought it to its apex. While the line watched, he carefully poured the bucket into two large jars. The priest watched Jacob, but held his silence.
Jacob turned to carry his jars home and faced the angry onlookers.
“You think you’re better than us?”
“You’d better be drinking that water, or watering the goats.”
“The fool would rather paint than live!” That one was close to the truth.
Jacob gritted his teeth and kept his pace deliberate, walking over the dry ground and loose stones just beyond the reach of the villagers. Of course he would use the water to paint—they were right about that—but he would take it out of his own allotment. There was no point trying to explain it. Perhaps the priest understood—Raphael hadn’t tried to stop him; anyway, it didn’t matter. What mattered was keeping enough water to paint.
By August the well had dried up.
As the weeks dragged on, Jacob heard them knocking again and refused to turn around. Yet the other villagers wouldn’t stop him: as much as they despised him, the villagers still seemed to understand his preternatural talent with paint. Somehow they knew that to destroy his brushes would bring disaster—or his cottage would have burned long ago. But disaster had come anyway, and their hatred rekindled. The knocking at his studio door had grown louder and louder. Since spring, he’d only painted two kinds of landscapes: half of his works were dominated by water—lush forests and meadows surrounding broad rivers, or images of lakes and seas—and the other half was sand dunes, deserts, stony hills, and wastelands. The former paintings taunted the dried-up villagers, while the latter confirmed their worst fears.
Today the knocking was light, but persistent. Finally, Jacob called to the visitor.
Maria entered his studio, closing the door behind her.
“Did you lose the rest of your friends?” Jacob asked.
“Please, you have to help us.”
“What can I do? My work is here.”
“How can God have ordered you to paint while the village dies?”
Jacob stared at Maria. “I don’t know what compels me, but I can’t help it.”
Maria looked from Jacob to his work. It might have been a landscape of their own Abyzon, but the houses and barns in this latest painting were thatched with snake-green grass. The animals were fat with shining fur, and the villagers smiled through their work: they weren’t weeding or plowing, but harvesting, gathering wheat and turnips effortlessly. The creek overflowed. Green grass covered much of the foreground. All that remained to paint were the faces of villagers.
Jacob watched Maria’s eyes and sighed. “Leave me alone; you must let me finish in peace.”
Maria’s flushed crimson. It was the last insult of so many from the village’s foolish artist. Even Maria couldn’t ignore this one. Then her eyes reddened, and turned to stone. “This cruel mockery could never be the work of God,” she cried. Her hands turned to claws as she gripped the canvas and ripped it from Jacob’s easel. Then she whirled and fled from the cottage.
“Even in our dying, Jacob mocks us!” she howled, waving the frame in the stale air. Soon she was surrounded by villagers, all trying to make sense of the affront before them.
“We are the real fools,” Maria cried. “He makes a joke at our expense. He paints a lush past while we rot in the present.” Her mantis-thin arms braced themselves against the wooden frame as she met the mob’s many eyes.
Francis, the rich man, appeared from within the crowd. “Perhaps he will sell this work and use the money to find help.”
Abel the alderman spoke up, “What help could he bring? Can he buy a new well, deeper than the old? Not before we thirst or starve.”
The growling of the crowd increased.
“People of Abyzon, quiet yourselves!” The mob looked down the road and saw Raphael in his robes, holding a crucifix. “The one who made this icon of our Lord was not your enemy, and neither is the one who paints in that hovel. Satan has poisoned you against him: Jacob does the work God has given him to do. Should we blame all of you for the drought and dead crops? It would be just as absurd to blame Jacob.”
The flock settled down, but the stamping legs and flaring nostrils spoke to their reluctance.
Finally, Maria broke the silence. “Jacob himself told me that his is not the work of God. So if this painting is the work of man, then it is a travesty and a furious joke upon all of us. If not,” she paused, “then it is devilry.”
This was argument enough to remove Raphael’s voice from the conversation. He watched, helpless, as the crowd fanned itself into a fury. Jacob was no devil, but by now the mob had run far beyond reason.
Overhead, the eternal sun played witness, watching the herd roar down the road as one creature. In a moment, they were upon Jacob’s house.