The Crusade, flash fiction by Marcus Speh

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September 12, 2015 by RJ

When the virus began to ravage the land, ripping families apart, taking brother from sister, mother from son, husband from wife, the children’s crusade began. At first, there were only the orphans who walked from village to village, but when the pestilence continued to kill, others joined who had lost a relative or a friend, and finally even children who had not lost anyone went with them. They walked by day and by night and they only rested long enough to gather strength so that they could move on. The bigger kids carried the smaller ones, who often were dozy and groggy from lack of sleep, and when those bigger kids needed to rest, their littler companions brought them drink and put palm leaves under their heads, which were still small by comparison with our heads. There was much love among the kids, as much love as necessary to hold them together and help the crusade grow, day by day, child by child, village by village and city by city. There was perhaps as much love as there was hate between those who had lost a loved one and those who hadn’t. As much as between a man who stays and a woman who leaves. Enough love for those who felt abandoned by God, by the West or the East or the North or the South: when they looked at the kids who walked tirelessly though they were exhausted, the desperate caught a whiff of courage and forgot their grief. The crusade had no leader though a few of them walked at the head of the line to find the way or give directions, but they changed all the time depending on where they went. They went everywhere, there was no place they didn’t get to, no oasis they did not touch, no settlement they did not see. And wherever they went, they lived on what the people gave them, the simplest things, bread and water, and the sweetest stuff, hugs and strokes and shy, tender looks.

The occurrence of a wandering group that sets out to heal the land always is a sort of miracle and engenders a melancholy. Now everyone begins to dream the same dream, both inside and outside of the group. Is it more sad that it doesn’t happen more often, or is it more joyous that it happens at all? And wherever the children went, where people began to dream, the disease left, not suddenly, grudgingly like someone who is owed a life or a serious debt. Like a merciless mercenary, like a lecherous merchant of death, it left scars and piles of bodies, but still the plague slowly retreated as if the edge of the children’s crusade was a sword.

As they were walking, the children prayed. They prayed hard. They prayed for clean water. They prayed for calm. They prayed for the help that comes from Angels and for the healing of the sick. They prayed even when they didn’t know what they were doing or saying. In their hearts they tightly held the patients who were shitting themselves, who were oozing pain from every pore to make it harder for them to slip away. They prayed the hardest for the dead who had not made it through. Some said they saw the souls of the departing hanging thickly around the heads of the children like glow worms. The children were not praying like men and women, they were chanting and singing and dancing and bringing down the rain that washes evil away.

The reporters had been transfixed by the dying and the failing to stop the dying from happening. By the time they began to pay attention to the childish crusade, thre were thousands of children and they had found their song and their stride. They were like a wave now, a wave of warm and well-meaning water. But waves bring memories of storm and some journalists were asking what if and wherefore: what if this cute crusade (it was already so much more than that) became a human tsunami. What if it swept through a continent already besieged by unrest and weakened by illness. Shouldn’t the children leave the serious work to the grown-ups? Catastrophes are best dealt with from above, these journalists said, with force and not with fantasy. They said, we need 100 hospitals rather than an army of stomping, singing teenagers who play. They asked, where were the parents of the children?. Had they given their permission? Were they behaving responsibly? An influential Berlin newspaper columnist, a stuffy man doing stuffy things with a stuffy nose, dug up the old German legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. With his sociological sorcery he linked the story that had laid dormant for 800 years to the children’s crusade, summoning old anxieties.


Finally, the movement had become a story. The need for rescue attracted the concerned, and helpers flocked to the country from everywhere. Within a short time the children were followed by a convoy of hundreds of jeeps filled with broadcasting technology. Soon they could not take a single step without someone thrusting a microphone at them, asking for interviews, picking up morsels of misunderstanding, fleshing out fears, ferreting for forebodings, filming, recording, tweeting, blogging. With the reporters came scientists, scholars and politicians. They were protected by the umbrellas of science and wealth. Their entourage included soldiers and servants, doctors and nurses, and much money. As if guided by an invisible spirit, or perhaps moved by the prayers of the crusaders, the riches channeled towards the media found their way past the pockets of thieves and into the hands of the carers and helpers of the dying sick, enough money to finish off the plague and defeat the disease. The ancient germ and the deadly virus need quiet and neglect to thrive. Where many gather in one place and pray, healing will happen. When many focus their love, fear must leave.

One morning, the reporters woke up to an unusual silence and when they left their cabins and hotels there were no more children waiting and chanting. They had moved on, gone home, and some had died. And the reporters left, too, for other crises.


Marcus Speh is a German writer and author of Thank You For Your Sperm (MadHat Press, 2013). He lives in Berlin, blogs at and is on Twitter @marcus_speh.

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