on December 13, 2007
With a stroke of her pen and a quote from the Malleus Maleficarum -the witch hunter's bible- Mailman plunges into a terrifying period of history, where superstition combines with ignorance and mass hysteria to accuse helpless women of witchcraft. Set in 1507 in the German village of Tierkenddorf, famine-starved neighbors cast covetous eyes on one another, their bellies empty and their minds fevered. In the home of Jost Muller, his wife, Irmeltrude resents each morsel shared with her elderly mother-in-law, Gude. Jost's son and daughter, silent, watch with widened eyes as Irmeltrude harries old Gude, one starless night pushing her from the hut, barring the door against the grandmother's return: "It was a winter to make bitter all souls."
Arriving in the village in response to a letter from the local lord, the stern-visaged Friar Johannes Fuchs, his voluminous black robes unfurling like wings against the snow, announces that he has come to purge this place of evil, the curse of witchcraft that has blighted the fields. The friar believes that just as "God punished the world with a flood... he is now punishing you with famine." Clearly witchcraft is at work. To discover and excise the source is to regain God's pleasure. All eyes fall on a solitary figure, Gude's girlhood friend, Kunne, now as bowed by age and hunger as the rest. An herbal healer, Kunne stands accused, neighbors stepping forward to complain of soured mild, hens that won't lay and barren wombs. Anguished, Gude watches as her dearest friend is stripped and burned on a pyre of wood, the village's lust for revenge temporarily sated.
But the famine does not abate. Most of the burg's able-bodied men take to the woods in search of game, knowing their quest may take them far; indeed, such are the odds that they may not return. Meanwhile, left to their empty larders and active imaginations, the women wait. Irmeltrude's rancor increases and Gude fears the malice in her daughter-in -law's eyes. Scheming to please the soul-hungry priest, Irmeltrude fastens upon the fact that the new friar gave meat to each family after Kunne's sacrifice. As hysteria mounts, the village turns one upon another, the innocent made guilty, the devil's malevolence at every hand. Without the men to temper their rampant emotions, new victims must be found to feed the beast of fear, even hunger forgotten in the heat of passion.
The clarity of Mailman's prose, the recreation of a simple village haunted by hunger, prey to the cajoling of the priest who claims authority to determine God's will and the helpless innocents who stand accused portray humanity at its most craven. Hearts turn to stone in self-preservation. Exposing the atavistic nature of survival, famine drives friends and neighbors to obscene behavior, blessed by a wild-eyed friar with a lust for sacrifice. Pulled back from the edge of despair, civilization is restored, but the ugly events of the recent past leave a mark upon the collective soul of this village, the same irrational fear that will erupt again and again over the years, innocent victims burned on the pyres of those seeking to placate God and point an accusatory finger at the devil. Mailman captures the madness in this place, at this time, a poignant reminder of our basest instincts left unchecked. Luan Gaines/2007.