IN A SMALL TOWN lived a well-to-do artisan who had twice been married. From his first marriage he had a son who was strong and brutal; but his second son, Hannes, was a delicate boy, who from early on was taken to be somewhat simpleminded.
After his mother’s death, hard times came upon Hannes; his brother despised and mistreated him, and his father always sided with the elder brother, for it disgraced him to have such a stupid son. Because he took no part in the pleasures and activities of other boys, spoke very little, and put up with quite a lot, Hannes gradually gained the reputation of being an extremely dull-witted child. And since he no longer had recourse to his mother, he had gotten into the habit of strolling about the meadows and gardens outside the town gate, whenever he was free to leave his father’s house.
Sometimes he stayed out there half the day, taking pleasure in examining the plants and flowers, learning to distinguish the many classes of stones, birds, beetles, and other animals; and he was on the best of terms with all these things and creatures. In these pursuits he was often quite alone, but not always. Small children not infrequently sought out his company, and it became apparent that although Hannes had nothing at all in common with boys of his own age, he made friends easily with many of the younger children. He showed them where the flowers grew, he played with them and told them stories; when they were tired he carried them, when they quarreled he made peace between them.
At first people did not like to see the young ones following him around. Then they grew accustomed to the sight, and many mothers were happy to sometimes leave their children in the boy’s care.
Yet, in a few years’ time, Hannes would suffer unpleasantness at the hands of his former charges. As soon as they outgrew his guardianship and heard from someone what a simpleton Hannes was, the well-bred avoided him, and the coarse mocked him.
When this became too painful for him to bear, he would escape alone to the gardens or the woods and would lure goats with vegetables or birds with crumbs, cheering himself with the company of the trees and animals, from which he need have no fear of disloyalty or enmity. He saw God travel across the earth atop high thunderclouds, he saw the Saviour wander on the still field paths, and when he saw Him, he would hide himself in the bushes and wait, with pounding heart, until He passed by.
When the time came for him to take up a profession, he did not go to work in his father’s workshop as his brother had done, but rather he left the town for the farms and worked as a herdsman. He drove sheep and goats, swine and cattle, and even geese to pasture. No harm came to his animals, and soon they knew and loved him; recognizing his call, they followed him in preference to other herdsmen. Townspeople and farmers alike were quick to notice this, and after a few years they entrusted their best and finest herds to the young herdsman. But when he had to go to market in town, his gait was humble and shy; the apprentices teased him, the schoolchildren called him names, and his brother, refusing to acknowledge him, contemptuously turned his back on him. When their father fell victim to an epidemic, his brother cheated him out of more than half his inheritance; Hannes paid it no mind and made no protest. Whatever he saved of his herdsman’s wages he sometimes gave to children or the poor, more often he would buy a collar with a bright bell for a cow or goat that he loved better than the others.
And so, many years went by; Hannes was no longer young. He knew very little of the life of men, but he knew quite a lot about wind and weather, livestock and dogs, the way the grass grows and the crops ripen. He could distinguish every one of his animals by its beauty and strength, by its disposition and age; moreover, he could identify all kinds of birds, knowing their habits and species; he also knew lizards, snakes, beetles, bees, flies, pine martens, and squirrels. He understood plants and herbs, soil and water, the seasons, and the phases of the moon. He settled disputes and put an end to jealousy among his animals, tended and healed them when they were sick, carefully raised those orphaned at birth, and never gave a thought to being anything other than a herdsman.
One day, while Hannes lay in the shade at the edge of the woods minding his cattle, a woman came running from the town into the woods; though she came quite near Hannes, she did not see him. Because she appeared to be in great distress, Hannes kept an eye on her, and soon he saw that she intended to take her own life, for she was tying a rope to the branch of a beech tree and was about to place the noose around her neck.
Cautiously but quickly, Hannes approached her, laid his hand on her shoulder, and put a stop to her plan. Terrified, the woman paused and gave him a hostile look. Then he obliged her to sit, and by speaking to her as one speaks to an inconsolable child, he brought her around; she told him her troubles and her whole story. She said she could no longer live with her husband, but Hannes could hear and sense quite clearly that she was still fond of him. He let her go on about her troubles until she calmed down a little. Then he tried to console her; he spoke of other things, his work, the woods and the herds, and finally he implored her to return home and try once more to talk to her husband. Weeping softly, she walked away, and for quite some time he neither saw nor heard anything more from her.
But, as autumn approached, the woman returned with her husband and his brother. She was happy and thankful; she told the herdsman the story of their reconciliation, invited him to visit them in town; and pointing to her brother-in-law, she asked Hannes not to deny counsel and consolation to him as well. The brother-in-law told Hannes his troubles: his mill had burned down and a son had died in the fire. Enormous serenity and strength dwelled in the shepherd as he looked at, listened to, and consoled the man. Without being conscious of it, he comforted the man and gave him new strength to live. With thanks, the townspeople left their comforter.
It was not long before the woman’s brother-in-law came to Hannes, bringing along a friend in need of advice; this friend later returned with still another. And, after a few years had passed, the whole town spoke of the shepherd Hannes’s ability to heal the sick-in-spirit, to settle disputes, to counsel the disconsolate, and give hope to those in despair.
As always, there were many who scoffed at him, but almost every day some new petitioner sought him out. He led a young spendthrift and ne’er-do-well back onto the path of virtue; he bestowed patience and hope on those who were sorely distressed; and a great stir went up when the differences between two rich families were reconciled through his mediation.
Many people spoke of superstition and sorcery; but since the shepherd took payment from no one, all reproaches were dispelled; people went to seek the unassuming man’s advice as if seeking the blessing of a saintly hermit. Legends and tales about his person and his life were popular everywhere; it was said that the beasts of the field followed him and that he understood the language of the birds, that he could make rain fall and divert the course of lightning.
His elder brother was foremost among those who still spoke of Hannes with scorn and envy. He called him a fool and a fool-catcher, and one evening, while carousing, he vowed to take his brother to task and put an end to his activities. True to his word, the next day he set off with two companions to find his brother. On an out-of-the-way moor, Hannes received him graciously, offered him bread and milk, inquired as to the health and well-being of himself and his family. And, before the elder brother could utter even one ill word, the herdsman’s nature touched and soothed him so greatly that he begged his forgiveness and contritely made his way home.
This last story stopped all malicious tongues from wagging; it was told again and again, each time with new details, and a young man wrote a poem about it.
When Hannes reached the age of fifty-five, the town fell on evil days. Senseless disputes broke out among the citizenry, blood flowed, and fierce hostilities arose. Poisoning was rumored to be the cause of certain unexplained deaths. And, while the community was still immersed in passionate factionalism, a horrifying pestilence spread through the region; first it brought death to children, then it struck down adults, and in a few weeks one-fourth of the population was swept off.
And, amidst these bad times, the old town burgomaster died. Now despondency and desperation gained the upper hand in a municipality afflicted with sickness and civil discord. Bands of thieves imperiled everyone’s well-being, all but the rogues had lost their heads, threatening letters terrorized the rich, and the poor had nothing to eat.
Looking for some of his protégés, Hannes came into town one day. He found one dead, another ill, a third orphaned and impoverished; houses stood empty, and in the streets terror, anxiety, and suspicion reigned. Hannes’s soul ached with the misery of his native town; and while he crossed the marketplace, several people in the crowd recognized him. A swarm of people, all in need of help, followed close behind him and would not let him get away. Without knowing how it came to pass, Hannes found himself on the uppermost step in front of the Town Hall, suddenly faced with a huge throng of people thirsty for words of consolation and hope.
Then an impulse to soothe and console them came over him; he stretched out his arms and spoke to the people, and they began to grow calm. He told them of sickness and death, sin and redemption, and he ended with a consoling tale. Yesterday, he said to them, on the hill above the town, he had seen Jesus, the Saviour of the World, who was on His way to put an end to all misery. And, while he spoke of this, his face beamed with compassion and love, and many wanted to believe that Hannes was the Redeemer sent by God to save them.
“Bring Him here!” cried the crowd. “Bring us the Saviour, that He may help us!”
Only now did Hannes begin to feel the terrible power and force of the intemperate hopes he had aroused. His senses clouded over and grew weary; for the first time in his life, he felt the misery of the world to be greater and more powerful than the power of his faith. The unfortunate ones who stood before him were no longer content to hear about the Saviour; so as not to doubt, they wanted to see Him themselves, to grasp His hands and hear His voice.
“I will pray to Him for you,” he said in a strained voice. “For three days and three nights I will seek Him out and implore Him to return with me to help you.”
Tired and confused, the prophet made his way through the swarming multitude; he crossed the bridge, went through the gate, and reached open ground, where the last few followers left him. Sorrowfully he entered the forest and with heavy thoughts he sought out that spot where at other times he sometimes had felt the nearness of God. Praying, but without hope, he went astray, oppressed by the misery of thousands. Without desiring it, he, a herdsman and friend of children, had become a spiritual adviser for the many; he had helped many and saved many, and now all this had been to no avail, and he was made to see that evil was inextinguishable and triumphant on earth.
On the fourth day, he entered the town slowly, bent over; his face had grown old, his hair had turned white. The people waited for him in silence, and many of them knelt down as he passed by.
He ended his life with a lie, which, nonetheless, was the truth.
“Have you seen God? And what has He told you?” the people asked.
And he opened his eyes and answered them: “This is what He told me: ‘Get you hence and die for your town, as I have died for the world.’”
For a while fear and disappointment held the multitude captive. Then an old man jumped to his feet, cursing, and spit in the prophet’s face. And so Hannes met his end, and in silence succumbed to the wrath of the people.