The Forge in the Forest  by Padraic Colum

The Seven Sleepers

dropcap image HE roots of the Cedars of Lebanon grew down into that cavern, and in their tangles a thousand bats huddled together. Every seven years the dog that was Malchus's dog wakened up: raising his head he would see his master and his master's six friends lying, one beside the other, fast asleep.

The dog that was Malchus's dog would smell around, but nothing would come to him except the smell that he had known in burrows—the smell of dry earth. There would be no stir in the air around him; there would be no movement upon the ground; there would be no daylight. The thousand bats, high above him, made no sound and gave no stir. With his head raised, the dog that was Malchus's dog would look at his master, expecting that his voice would come to him. No voice would come, and the dog would turn round, and lie down, and sleep again.

Every seven years for fifty times seven years the dog would wake up; still his master and his master's six friends lay there, their flesh upon them, and the bloom of youth upon their flesh. Then, one day, light streamed into the cavern, for the stones that had been set at its mouth were removed. The dog waked up; seeing the daylight, the dog barked. Malchus, his master, waked up. And then the other six sleepers wakened.

They awakened and they said to one another, "We have slept; even through the hours of our great danger we slept." They saw daylight streaming in and each said, "It is not as we thought it was." Each thought that he had had a dream of the cavern being closed upon them by their persecutors with immovable stones.

For these youths had been persecuted by Decius, Emperor of the Romans, King of the Four Quarters of the Earth, having dominion over seventy-two Kings. The Emperor had been moved to persecute the Christians of the city of Ephesus. He had a proclamation made, saying that all who would not go into the pagan temples and make sacrifice to the pagan idols should be cut to pieces by his soldiers; he himself rode on his horse into the city to see that his command was carried out.

Nearly all who were in the city forsook the Christian faith. But there were seven youths who would not forsake it, nor go into the pagan temples and make sacrifice to the pagan idols. These seven were friends who were devoted to one another, and their names were Malchus, Marcian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, Maximian, and Constantine.

They stole from the city and they went towards the mountain Celion, and the dog that was Malchus's dog followed them. They hid within a cavern. Then one went back to the city to buy food. The shopkeeper who sold him meal made a little rent in the bag so that the meal trickled out, leaving a track where he went. And the Emperor, mounted on his horse, followed this track and came to the cavern where the seven had hidden themselves. He signed to his followers, and they drew heavy stones, and they closed up the entrance of the cavern. "In a while," the Emperor said, "none will be left alive in Ephesus or around it who have the Christian faith." And the Emperor rejoiced as he said this. The seven in the cavern sat together; they saw the daylight being shut out, and they knew from the scornful shouts of those outside that they had been shut in so that they never could leave the cavern. They sat there talking to one another, and weeping and consoling one another. Then they slept. The dog that was Malchus's dog crept close to them, and he, too, slept, but every seven years he awakened.

And after a hundred years, and another hundred, and a third hundred years had passed, a man came to the side of that mountain, and seeking weighty stones for the building of a roadway, he took away the stones that were at the mouth of the cavern. It was then that the daylight streamed in on where they lay. It was then that the dog that was Malchus's dog barked. It was then that they wakened up—Malchus, Marcian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, Maximian, and Constantine. It was then that each said, "It is not as I thought; the mouth of the cavern is not closed upon us."

They were hungry. Malchus told his friends that he would steal into the city, and buy bread and bring it back to them. They let him go, and he went out of the cavern, and down the side of the mountain, and along the road that went to the city of Ephesus. When he came before the gate of the city he nearly fell backward in astonishment. For behold! over the gate of the city was the cross of the Christian faith. He thought that this could be nothing but a trick to bring back to the city the Christians who had fled from it. And in greater fear than ever he went through the gate and into the city.

He had lived in a wide street in that city, but now he went down by-ways and lane-ways so that he might not be met by those who knew him. He came to a baker's shop that was away from the main part of the town, and he went within. He saluted the baker, and the baker returned his salutation in the name of Christ. Malchus was fearful, thinking that the words were said to trap him, but he pretended not to have heard what the baker said. He took the loaves from him, and handed him a silver coin in payment.

When the baker received the coin he looked at Malchus sharply. He then went to the back of the shop and spoke to some who were there. Malchus was about to steal out of the shop when the baker came and laid hands on him, saying, "Nay, you must not go until you have told us where the treasure is that you found."  "I found no treasure," Malchus said to him. "Where, then, did you get the ancient coin that you have given me in payment for the loaves? Assuredly you have found a treasure." And when the baker said this to him Malchus gave himself up for lost, for he thought that this talk about treasure was but a pretence to hold him until they examined him on the charge of being a Christian.

The men in the baker's shop laid hold on Malchus, and they put a rope around his neck, and they dragged him into the market-place. They said to those who crowded around, "Here is one who has found a treasure that must be given to the Emperor, and we would have a reward for making him reveal where that treasure now is." And Malchus, in the market-place, looked all round him. He saw no one there whom he knew, and he could see that no one in the crowd knew him. He said to those that were around, "Tell me, I implore you, what city is this that I have come into?" They said, "You are playing the madman, pretending that you do not know that this is the great city of Ephesus."

It was then that Malchus saw coming through the crowd one in the robes of a Christian Bishop. "Who is the youth, and why is he being treated by the Ephesians in this way?" he asked. And Malchus heard those around him say, "He has offered a coin of the reign of an ancient Emperor in payment for loaves of bread, and he dares to say that it is of the money that his parents gave him. Assuredly he has found a treasure, but he will tell none of the Ephesians where the treasure now is."

Malchus saw that the one who came to him was indeed a Bishop, and he was more and more bewildered. The Bishop came and spoke tenderly to him. Then said Malchus, "I implore you to tell me where the Emperor Decius has gone to." The Bishop said, "Decius is not our Emperor's name. There has not been an Emperor of the name of Decius for three hundred years." And then he said, "If, as you say, you have parents and friends living in the city of Ephesus, tell us their names, so that we may bring them to you."

Then Malchus gave the names of his parents, and the names of the friends he knew in Ephesus. No one in the crowd had heard of them. The Bishop then told him that he might go to the place where he thought his parents lived. Malchus went there, the Bishop and the people following him. And when he came to the place where his parents' house had stood, behold! what he saw there was a pool of water with birds dipping their wings in it.

When he saw this he wept. Then to the Bishop and those who were with the Bishop he said, "I do not understand what I look upon. I thought that I was in great danger in coming here, thinking that it was only yesterday that the Christians of Ephesus were being put to the sword. But I see the cross surmounting the churches, and I see the Christian Bishop having authority. And yet it is to me as if I had come into a city of the dead. Let me, I pray you, go back to the cavern where I left my companions."

The Bishop signed to those who were guarding him, and they let Malchus go. He went, and they followed him, towards the mountain Celion. He entered the cavern. He saw his six friends, Marcian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, Maximian, and Constantine, and they welcomed him joyfully. He gave them the bread he had brought, and they ate, and were elated. But when they asked of him what signs he saw of the persecution of Christians in Ephesus, he wept. And then he told them that all they had known in Ephesus had passed away, the good with the evil, and that there was no persecution of Christians there, and that the cross was reared in triumph over the churches and over the gate of the city, and that their parents and all whom they knew were dead and long passed away. His friends listened to him in wonder. And while he was still speaking, the Bishop came into the cavern where they were. "Bless us, Holiness," the seven youths said to him. "Nay, it is you should bless me and bless the people of Ephesus," the Bishop said, "seeing that it was on you that God bestowed the most signal favour—the favour of keeping you in life to witness the triumph of the cross in Ephesus and in the whole of the east of the world." Then the Bishop led them without, and the seven stood on the side of the mountain, and blessed the people who came that way towards them, on the morning of Easter, carrying the cross.


The seven stood on the side of the mountain and blessed the people.

As they stood there, it seemed to the seven of them—to Malchus, Marcian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, Maximian, and Constantine—that every clod within was making melody, such music came to them from the cavern. Again they went within. Then they lay down as before and the dog that was Malchus's dog lay near them. And lying there their souls went from them, and they passed out of this life. Then the flesh fell away from them, and only their bones and the bones of the dog that was Malchus's dog were left in the cavern. And, behold! a rose tree grew up where they had lain, and its branches spread out and grew over the mouth of the cavern, wreathing it in roses. Ever afterwards, in that cavern and around it, there was the scent of roses.