Above a town nestled in a dry valley lived a hermit. His hut stood on a hill at the end of a dirt track. He was mad. Yet the mayor of the county considered him to be wise. He was sometimes employed as a special advisor to the Council. His pronouncements would be unintelligible to many. However, others were in awe of his words and some of these people were influential in local life.
Two ethnic groups populated the area. Their differences were more historical than rooted in present day life. But it was true to say that the Brancos outnumbered and held more important positions than the Vonnes. The mayor was naturally a Branco. His deputy was a Vonne and there were a few more in various posts in the local government. As a rule, though, Vonne were mostly farmers who worked the land around the valley.
Now, the hermit was a Vonne. His own had little time for him, not knowing whether he was lunatic or genius and not caring. However, once the Council began to pay him with a weekly supply of food and sundries, he attracted others’ attention. No one said anything, but he was eating better than the poor farmers and their families, especially after a bad harvest.
This payment was dropped off at his dwelling by children of senior officials. Though the daughter of the deputy mayor had done her chore the week before, the girl who should have gone this time was pretending to be ill, so she had to go again. It was a half hour walk up a steep path on a hot afternoon. By the time she got to the hut she was in a bad mood.
She hammered on the door, then pushed it open. The hermit was sitting in a corner in the darkness. He started shouting. The language he used was colourful, to say the least. The deputy mayor’s daughter turned and ran back down the hill. She was not really shocked or offended but that was not how she was going to play the situation.
She reached home out of breath. Her mother was scandalised when told what had happened. She insisted that her husband do something. The deputy mayor frowned. He did not like confrontation.
However, he called his boss. The mayor was of the opinion that no one should speak to a girl the way the hermit had done, though he did not know the exact words used. Neither did the deputy mayor nor his wife. They agreed to visit the hermit and insist that he apologise.
The Vonne were spiritual people. Their head adviser on these matters was called the mufti. He had been quietly envious of the hermit’s standing with the mayor. He got wind of the coming rebuke and called the deputy mayor to say that he should be present too.
The next day the three of them set off for the hut on the top of the hill. The mayor explained to its owner the purpose of their visit. The hermit swore at him. This reaction was not wholly unexpected. The crazy man’s position as an adviser and the regular donation of supplies would have to be terminated.
The mayor and his deputy turned to leave. The mufti, however, stayed to comment that the hermit was clearly in need of spiritual guidance and should take more interest in his community’s activities in this area. Their host then insulted an ancient spiritualist whose teachings the Vonne followed.
For a moment the mufti was paralysed in shock. Then he stormed out and marched down the slope. That evening he called a special meeting of his junior spiritual advisors. He explained that they were not to get overly worried, but a public figure had attacked their historical leader. They became very grave.
The mufti suggested that a dignified response would be for a delegation of them to speak to the hermit who was clearly in need of guidance. They would not insist on an apology, just that he attend a few enlightenment sessions.
The next day ten men arrived at the hut. Its owner ignored them and pottered about the plants in his front garden. The younger ones in the group felt embarrassed and awkward as the mufti explained what he wanted and the hermit hummed to himself as if they were not there.
For a moment the spiritual leader lost his composure, and snapped at the crazy man. This attracted his attention. He said quietly that he was not interested in what they had to offer him. The mufti countered that he had a duty to his people. The hermit then aimed an insult at the race they were all members of. This comment highlighted the lower social rank of the Vonne.
The group went back down the hill in silence. Each returned to his family and recounted their story. Ten varying versions of what happened and what was said went round the community of farmers. The Vonne were unified in their shock and horror.
Action was demanded. Normally demur people were becoming tense and aggressive. The mufti advised calm. However, a mob assembled to go up to the hut. None of these people had been members of the previous group. There was an even split now between men and women, old and young. Naturally, the mayor and other government officials heard about what was going on. Members of the local security force were sent to accompany the latest visitors to the hermit.
He would not answer his door. The mob was sure he was inside. They debated about whether or not to break in. The security officers suggested that they return home, not for the first time. Suddenly a creaking sound came from the front of the hut. Everyone fell silent and watched.
A man with a scraggly white beard stepped out. Most of the people had never seen the hermit before. Strange monosyllabic grunts were now being addressed to them. They looked around at each other. It was more than likely he was mocking them.
Then a woman stepped forward and proclaimed that Vonne were good people but they could not be pushed around. Others were arousing themselves and shouting at the hermit. Those that were neutral sensed it was time they took sides and moved to surround the crazy man so that the mob could not get to him. He started speaking in a high-pitched voice. No one understood what he was saying but everyone presumed it was insults.
The security officers realised that they would have to escort the hermit away. He did not want to budge. The chief argued with him. People were pushing forward. A rod was raised. A young man went down. A woman screamed.
For a moment everyone stood still. Then the original perpetrator of the incident was grabbed and bundled down the hill.
The injured man was conscious, with a dripping gash on the side of his head. The mob saw that he was all right then ran after the hermit and his protectors.
The mayor wanted a full inquiry into the assault. This was a peaceful community. Violent incidents and mass demonstrations did not happen here. But now a lot of people were angry. They did not want the hermit to be protected. Most of the officials did not want to protect him. He insulted any of them who came within hearing range, including the mayor again.
He was not in prison, far from it. He was occupying the visiting dignitary’s suite in the government hotel. An armed guard was at the door. He was not permitted to leave.
The mufti and deputy mayor had been denounced as weak and ineffective. The Vonne had found spokespeople previously unknown to the wider community. They were not hard workers, but they always found reasons to complain about how unfair life was. Now, for the first time, people were listening to them.
It was decided that there should be a permanent vigil outside the government hotel. On the first afternoon some 30 people stood under the window of the hermit’s room. There was no sign of him. By the evening 10 were left. Two stalwarts kept their position through the night.
Early the next morning a window creaked open and a rock was thrown at the two remaining boys. They could not be sure it had come from where the hermit was staying, but who else would have done such a thing? This was the general feeling when more Vonne arrived later.
A representative of the mayor came to tell them that the security officer who had caused the injury outside the hut had been identified. He had been expelled from the force and the victim was to receive a substantial payment in compensation.
They did not care. They wanted the hermit to be punished. A law existed among the spiritual advisors that no Vonne should ever say anything abusive about their ancient teachers. This was mostly told to children. No one remembered any instance of it actually being invoked. Now, however, it was being constantly quoted along with the punishment. This was a bare back whipping of ten lashes.
News of the affair had reached the neighbouring county and its mayor. She already knew about the hermit and had been impressed by his advice to the Council. A safe home in another town was offered to him. He considered and agreed.
The Vonne heard about the offer and were incensed. In the middle of the night a government car arrived at the hotel. A handful of protestors watched. A circle of security officers came out, with the mad man in the middle.
Suddenly he broke through his protectors and ran towards the Vonne group. They were astonished as he stopped in front of them. One had a long sturdy stick. The hermit turned to him and made some odd barking noises. The weapon swished through the air, making sweet contact on the side of his face. He fell.
The officers ran after the Vonne. The crazy man lay in the dust, a puddle of blood around his head, life fleeing from his eyes.
The mayor and his deputy both resigned. None of the Vonne who had been present at the attack on the hermit would admit which one dealt the blow. So, they were all freed. They were welcomed back by their people as heroes.
The hermit was paralysed and unable to speak. He had his own room in the government hospital of the neighbouring county. He could write. The mayor often read the words he put to paper. She was always impressed by his wisdom and insight.