The inhabitants of a large industrial town, some of whom were exceedingly wealthy while others merely aspired to be so, found themselves in a strange, complex and embarrassing predicament, the like of which they had never experienced before, and from which there seemed to be no escape: every year, with the coming of spring, the bodies of all the inhabitants of the town – young and old, babies, women and men, without exception – became covered with pink sores, the size of walnuts and just as hard. The sores were unbearably painful all through the spring, disappearing in summer only to reappear the following year, with the coming of a new spring. The local doctors, renowned for their skills throughout the land and even beyond its borders, were helpless; nor could their colleagues from neighbouring lands do anything to help.
With the utter failure of medical science – wisdom, knowledge and commonsense proving utterly powerless – all the worthies of the town and its most respected citizens convened an urgent meeting. After prolonged and wearisome debate, the decision was taken to appeal to the Almighty; perhaps He in His mercy would be disposed to bring healing, where the brilliant intellect and the much-vaunted resourcefulness of His creatures had achieved nothing.
So all the residents of the town put forward their pleas before God Almighty, and they entreated Him most earnestly, calling upon Him to see their suffering and ease their pain, and have compassion upon them and upon their wives and their old folk and the infants at their feet, and send to them a wise and understanding messenger, a miraculous counsellor, to deliver them from this terrible scourge that had befallen them for all the evil that they had done, and put an end to their suffering. So that days of light and joy would finally return, and their happiness never again be taken from them.
And God heard, and He sent to the tormented residents of the town, so helpless and forlorn, an angel in the form of a man to ease their suffering and heal their affliction, as they had beseeched Him.
And the messenger of the Lord descended from the heavens to the busy streets of the town. He mounted a raised platform in one of the squares, and appealed to the passers-by. He called out to them in a loud voice:
“Your prayers have been heeded, and your pleas have fallen on attentive ears! The Lord, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and ever kind, has heard your prayers, and at His command I have been sent to you to deliver you from the torment that surrounds you and from the catastrophe that has befallen you. Come to me and be healed of your affliction, and be delivered from your agony, and never again know misery and misfortune!”
And the messenger of the Lord, standing on the platform in the heart of the bustling town, fell silent and waited for the afflicted, desperate citizens to come to him for healing. And he stood waiting from morning until evening, and from evening until morning, and no one approached him, not even to bid him good day.
And the messenger descended from the platform and mingled with the suffering populace. He approached one man and asked him:
“Are you not the ones who beseeched the Lord Almighty, humbly imploring Him to send His angel to cure you of your pain? You see – He has heard your prayers and sent me to you to bring you healing and put an end to your torment… So why do you not come to be cured?”
And the other said to him in reply:
“We do not believe that you are the man of God or His sacred messenger, and that is why no one will approach you to consult you or hear what you have to say, not even bid you good day!”
“Why do you not believe that I have been sent by God the Most High, and why do you not approach me even to bid me good day?” – inquired the messenger, uncomprehending.
“Clear and distinct signs testify to the fact that you have not come from the presence of the Lord, nor have you been sent by the Blessed One!” – was the citizen’s angry response.
“And what are these clear and distinct signs?” the messenger queried, and the other replied in a decisive tone that would brook no argument:
“It is the trousers that you wear!” He hastened to explain his meaning: “Is it possible that a messenger of the Lord, one whose wisdom is greater than that of any human being, who is mightier than any warrior of the past, the present or the future – would wear such shabby trousers, hanging so loosely and shapelessly on the body, as those trousers of yours? They do not conform to the dictates of fashion and they arouse derision and scorn in the minds of all who see them. Was it a pauper that sent you?” And the citizen concluded his speech in the same aggressive tone: “It is our firm and unanimous opinion that you are not the messenger of the Lord, nor are you His faithful servant; you are nothing but a miserable impostor, a beggar!” He turned away with an ostentatious air of contempt, and went about his business, disappearing from view.
The messenger of the Lord was baffled by the townspeople and their way of thinking, and dumbfounded by their obstinacy. He appealed to the One who had sent him, and asked to have his clothing changed, to have those shabby, shapeless and undignified trousers turned into new ones, the kind that the townspeople wore and considered fashionable. And before his request was even completed, his clothing was changed: his trousers were brand-new, elegant and stylish, immaculately tailored in accordance with the very latest fashion – the best quality available in that place and at that time.
And the messenger of God returned to the streets and the marketplaces, the bustling squares and boulevards of that town, and he called out again:
“Come to me all those of you who implored God the Most High to send you His angel, to heal you of your afflictions and erase sorrow and pain from your hearts, and bring you salvation. You will suffer no more, and joy will return to your dwellings, and your spirits will be glad! Come, and delay no longer,” the messenger cried, adding: “I am the one that you hoped and prayed for, an envoy of God who brings you solace in His name. I am he!”
And he climbed stairs and entered one of the public halls of the town, used for assemblies and civic gatherings, and waited for the people to come to him for healing. And he waited in vain, for no one approached, and no one came near. His very existence was ignored.
Utterly baffled and confused the messenger left the hall and again appealed to one of the passers-by, asking him the same question as before: why was no one coming to him for healing, although this was the purpose for which he had been sent.
The man looked at the messenger with loathing, as if shocked by his effrontery – daring to accost him with such a question. He declared:
“It is because of the trousers that you wear!” And he went on to explain: “Are we to believe that Almighty God, the creator and controller of all the worlds, would send down His angel dressed in elegant trousers conforming to the latest earthly style, fit only for hedonists, for mindless and frivolous mortals? Whatever became of humility, of reverence, of dignified simplicity and enlightened self-effacement? Only a scoundrel, or a charlatan, would wear such pretentious attire!” And he concluded forcefully: “We shall not come near you, nor shall we listen to what you have to say. We are not going to fall into the cunning and malicious trap that you have set for us!”
Hearing this diatribe, the messenger of the Lord fell silent, and for some time he stood motionless, as if turned to stone, while a crowd of curious onlookers began to gather around him. Suddenly the angel fell to his knees, and raising his face and arms heavenwards, he called upon his Father who had sent him, crying out to Him in anguish:
“My holy Father, they do not want you!”
At that moment the divine messenger disappeared from the sight of the curious, who had been staring at him with condescension and undisguised contempt. And the crowd was struck with awe and puzzlement, and there were those who said:
“This was indeed the angel that we hoped for, who came to bring solace to our souls and cure us of our afflictions, and put an end to our torment!”
But as the chronicles of the town reveal, those who held this opinion were soon shouted down by the majority, by those who noisily insisted on their version of events:
“Nonsense! He was nothing but an impostor and a conjuror! Would an angel of God wear such trousers?”
The townspeople were not delivered and their affliction, instead of subsiding and disappearing, became fiercer still and no longer abated with the coming of summer, but continued throughout the year, persisting even in the autumn and the winter. And the town was shrouded in deep mourning and beset by anguish and unspeakable pain. And the people stopped appealing to God; they maintained that He was not listening to them and was not concerned for their welfare, and in fact – He might just as well not exist.
A boy and a girl were friends, and their friendship was firm and steadfast and flawless, and they were truly loyal to each other. Everything they had they shared between them equally, and they told each other all the stories that they knew, revealed to each other all the secrets they had heard; they shared all the ideas that occurred to them and all the dreams that they dreamed, and everything that they longed for. Naturally, they also defended each other from the bullies and the street urchins who made fun of them and gave them a hard time, attacking and assaulting them on a regular basis.
In fact, it was the boy who used to fight valiantly in defence of his friend, who was unable to take part in the brawling and defend either herself or her friend, because of the large hump that deformed her back and bowed her over in a most ungainly fashion. The hump was the primary cause of the scuffles and confrontations with the street gangs; the children, in typical fashion, used to call the girl with the hump humiliating and derogatory names such as “two-legged camel”, or “hump-backed mule”. The boy would retort in kind, and before long the exchange of insults would turn into an exchange of blows, which usually ended with the boy lying prone in the muddy gutter, recipient of a respectable quota of punches, kicks and bites.
One day, the boy and the girl were sitting on the pavement, after a “battle” that had left fresh bruises on their faces and bodies, and the girl turned to the boy, who was doing everything he could to cheer her up, and told him that she was sick of her life as it was, and it was absolutely clear to her that she had nothing to look forward to but bitter disappointment, pain and searing, infuriating insults, and her heart told her that the best option for her was to put an end to the poisonous derision, and the interminable suffering of body and of mind…
In vain the boy tried to persuade her otherwise, and prove to her, citing all kinds of conclusive evidence, that all this would pass and they would grow up and no longer be easy prey for the street children; he added that there were eminent people who were also hunchbacks, and finally he said he would never, ever, abandon her, until the end of all time. With all the eloquence that he could muster he begged her and entreated her to take pity on him and not leave him all alone in a world of such meanness and cruelty… But the girl refused to listen, and she left her loyal friend and returned to her own home, determined to put an end to her miserable existence.
In his bitter despair, the boy fell to his knees in the place where his friend had left him, and with tears in his eyes and arms outstretched, he cried out to the heavens and demanded that justice be done and asked that He, the one renowned for His boundless mercy, show mercy to his unhappy friend. And even before the cry fell silent, a shining figure appeared before the boy, as he still knelt – a vision of majesty and splendour, smiling serenely and saying:
“The world is founded on the justice and the mercy that you asked for, and on them it depends for its existence.”
“Then remove the hump from my friend’s back!” cried the boy, recovering from his surprise.
“If the hump is removed – it will not be mercy, nor will justice be served!” was the distinct answer.
“I don’t understand this!” protested the boy who had prayed.
“The way you comprehend is such that you cannot understand. But if it is your earnest desire to discover the reality of justice and know the quality of mercy – then you must experience them at first-hand.”
“And how do I do this?” the boy demanded impatiently.
“By taking on the hump of your friend, if she agrees, for one whole day and carrying it your back,” the radiant figure declared. “Are you ready to do this?”
“Ready and willing!” cried the boy joyfully, rising to his feet.
“Do it then!” the figure commanded, and disappeared from his sight.
The boy went in search of his friend and found her in the corner of a dank cellar.
“Tell me you are ready and willing to have your hump transferred to my back, and it shall be done! Say it! Speak!” exclaimed her courageous friend.
And before she realised what she was saying, a cry emerged from the girl’s lips, and she agreed.
At that very moment she felt a huge sense of relief, as if a huge stone had been removed from her back. Her body, bowed down for as long as she could remember, was suddenly straightened – whether she wanted it so or not. Impulsively, she put her hands behind her back and with trembling fingers tried to feel the hump – but no trace of it remained.
Without saying a word, the girl ran outside, like a bird suddenly released from its cage and heeding the call of freedom, while her friend, bent double and struggling under the weight of the great hump, hobbled ponderously behind her.
With considerable and unaccustomed effort, he managed to catch up with his friend; he was so delighted by her happiness, he almost wept. He wheezed and panted, his heart pounding with joy and exhilaration – and from the exertion of carrying the weight. Meanwhile the two of them were seen by a group of children of their own age. For a long moment the onlookers stared at them as if rooted to the spot, mouths gaping and eyes open wide, refusing to believe what they were seeing: a mischievous girl, all aglow with joyful charm, as light as a feather, prancing on the cobblestones – and trailing along behind her, a boy bent down almost to the ground under the weight of a massive hump, breathing heavily in a desperate attempt to follow his friend’s example, his clumsy gait eliciting only peals of laughter.
The girl stopped and stood still, turned and saw her loyal friend carrying her hump on his back. His eyes awash with joyful tears, he caught up with her, and held out a warm and trembling hand to her as he had done so many times before. The girl said to him:
“I won’t touch your hand lest the hump come back and attach itself to my back again. Can you forgive me for this?”
“Of course!” cried the boy warmly. “From now on, we don’t have to hold hands anymore! Let’s carry on with the game that we started this morning, before those idiots interrupted us, as they usually do!”
“I’m afraid there’s no point in finishing off the game we started this morning,” the girl replied calmly, with a charming smile. “I am so much faster than you are, and you can’t be my partner in the game anymore!” And saying this, she turned to a gang of surly ruffians and called out to them: “Anyone who wants to play with me, come now! I am sure I can beat all of you easily, at any game you choose!”
The children recovered from the shock and suddenly burst into loud and ringing laughter, resonant and harmonious to the ear, the wholesome laughter of schoolchildren. And then, as if a signal had been given, the laughing children fell upon the boy with the hump, just as they had attacked the girl on a number of occasions. The boy was knocked to the filthy ground, the recipient of punches, bites and kicks… Were it not for a workman who happened to be passing and dispersed the urchins, the boy’s fate would have been unenviable indeed.
“You don’t have many friends round here, do you?” asked the workman sympathetically, in a tone blending compassion with a sizeable hint of distaste.
“I do!” the boy replied, clearing his throat and standing unsteadily, spitting blood. He turned this way and that, but could see no one.
The boy returned to his home, but his parents did not recognise him and at first refused to believe his story. It took some time to convince them. And when they were finally persuaded beyond a shadow of a doubt that this ugly, deformed creature with the huge lump on his back was indeed their son, the parents fell into each other’s arms, and wept long and bitterly over the malign fate that had dealt them this cruel and merciless blow.
The boy sat in his little room, and deep in his heart he hoped his friend would come, to ask after him, comfort him and apologise for her behaviour – the result no doubt of her relief and exhilaration following liberation from the burden of the hump. But she did not come.
Late at night, the boy slipped out of his parents’ home, arrived at his friend’s house, and as had always been his custom, tried to wake her by throwing handfuls of sand at her window.
The girl opened the window and leaned out over its broad sill. The boy once more expressed his delight at knowing she was finally rid of that fearful hump. Only now did he realise how heavy it had been, and what immeasurable suffering it brought to the one who bore it. Surely, the boy added – since his friend did not react or respond to his words, and he felt awkward, not wanting the conversation to end so abruptly – surely the distress that had afflicted her before had passed never to return, and she saw how truly wonderful life could be, and there was no reason to loathe it, and his joy was her joy and he hoped to see her the next day at their usual place, which she knew so well…
“If indeed my joy is your joy,” the girl replied finally, in an unfamiliar voice, pleasantly modulated and assured – “don’t bother going to our usual place, or anywhere else for that matter. The sight of your hump is painful to me and it brings back unpleasant memories, and above all, it arouses in me feelings of revulsion which I cannot resist… You know I have always been honest with you and now I am telling you plainly – I can’t spend time with someone who has a hump or be his friend, not ever!”
And the boy answered in a shaking voice that he understood her feelings and would no longer trouble her with his presence, or expect her to look at that hideous hump, and his only hope was that the happiness she had gained after such long suffering, and the joy of which none could be more deserving, would continue unimpaired until the very end of time.
The girl heard the words of her long-time friend, stepped back and silently closed the window. And the boy returned to his home, weeping bitterly all the way, and the tears continued to flow when he took to his bed, the great hump vibrating to the rhythm of his sobs.
The next day at the appointed time, the hump disappeared from the back of the boy and attached itself once more to the girl, bending her proud back.
And the shining figure appeared again before the boy:
“Are your eyes now open to see and your heart to understand?”
“No!” exclaimed the boy, “I shall never understand! I don’t want my friend to suffer, no matter how selfish she has been, how unspeakably cruel. Her happiness is my happiness, and her joy is my joy!”
And the shining figure replied:
“There can be no happiness so long as selfishness rules the heart, and cruelty – is its expression! The hump on your friend’s back will teach her to rid herself of selfishness and cleanse herself from cruelty – and thus she will gain happiness. You must help her in this, you must make her understand the purpose of the hump in her life and tell her that the moment she purges the selfishness from her heart and renounces cruelty – the hump will disappear from her back, never to return!”
But the boy refused to be comforted and would not accept the reassurances of the divine envoy. The latter thought for a while, before finally looking up and addressing the boy again:
“Go to your friend and ask her consent to have the hump transferred back to you for whatever period of time you agree on: if a day – then a day, if a month – then a month, if a year – then a year, if forever – then forever.”
The heavenly messenger disappeared, and the boy ran to his friend. He found her in the depths of bitter despair, beset by intolerable anguish. Before she could speak, he called to her:
“I have the promise of the heavens that I can again carry your hump on my back for whatever period of time we agree on between us: if a day – then a day, if a month – then a month, if a year – then a year, and if forever – then forever. For my part, I implore you to agree that the hump be moved to me forever! As your happiness is my happiness, and your joy is my joy!”
And the girl with the hump looked up at her long-time friend, gazed tearfully into his eyes – radiant with ineffable purity – and declared:
“I will not allow you to carry my hump for even one minute! From this day forward I will bear it on my back with joy, for I have learned from you what love is.”
And even while the girl was still speaking, the hump melted away from her back and vanished, as if it had never existed. And the two children froze for a long moment, stunned and bemused by the wonder that had befallen them, and when they recovered their wits, they fell into each other’s arms in a long and firm embrace. And when they separated, they knelt down and gave thanks from the depths of their purified hearts for the justice and the mercy that God grants to all.