Excerpt for Rusalka: A Supernatural Czech Fairy Tale by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





RUSALKA

A Supernatural Czech Fairy Tale



BY

ODELIA FLORIS





Also by Odelia Floris



Adult fiction

Beguile Me Not (A colonial New Zealand-set Victorian romance)

In Want of a Wife: A Sweet Regency Romance Novella

The Heart of Darkness

(The Chaucy Shire Medieval Mysteries, Book 1)



Children’s fiction

The Little Demon Who Couldn’t



Nonfiction

Inspiration & Wisdom from the Pen of

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Over 600 Quotes



For more on these books, visit

www.odeliafloris.com



COPYRIGHT © ODELIA FLORIS 2017





PART ONE







The whispering willows trailed their gentle tresses in the lake’s clear shallows as if lost in dreams of love. Behind them the tall forest trees crowded as though eager to peer into the crystal depths, but afraid of what they might see in the shimmering blue and green hues now fading to duskier, more mysterious shades as evening descended on forest and lake. A soft breeze wandered the grassy meadow meeting the lake’s western shore, gillyflowers and white daisies nodding their silent greeting as it passed. The breeze tarried amongst the tall grass heads before stepping onto the lake sleepily lapping against the golden sand ringing its edge. Fleet-footed the breeze danced across the water, rippling the stars glowing on its now-dark countenance. Dusk had come to the forest and to the lake. The woodland birds were silent at last. The air was still and fragranced with the breath of the approaching night. With day and her watchful, wakeful attendants gone, silver was upon the lake and magic upon the air…

A light bell-like laugh echoed out in the forest clearing. ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ taunted a wood nymph, splashing the water with her tiny foot before skipping back into the trees.

‘You’ll not catch us, you’ll not catch us!’ called her sister, springing from mossy stone to mossy stone at the water’s edge.

‘You’re too slow, you’re too slow!’ laughed another, hanging from the branches of the willow and trailing her slender legs in the water.

‘Confound you!’ It was the Vodník – Czech for water goblin – frowning dully at the water running from the closed hand which ought to have held a nymph’s foot. He shook his head and chuckled. ‘Always so fast…’

The nymphs’ teasing laughter danced bright and ringing across the dusky, silvery waters. The trio ran out from the shadows of the forest and onto the meadow. Wild was their dance. With their long hair flying and green, gossamer-fine dresses swirling about them, they danced and leaped and turned.

‘Come and get us, come and play with us!’ they called, and bright was their echoing laughter.

The Vodník shook his head, sending droplets from his hair, tufted and wild as water-weed. ‘You well know we water sprites cannot walk on dry land any more than you can live in the water. But his smile was indulgent, as a grandfather might smile as a baby tugged at his hair.

‘How golden is my hair, how fair is my little foot!’ sang the wood nymphs, advancing once again to the water’s edge.

But the Vodník did not snatch at their splashing feet this time. He had turned away and now looked up at the figure sitting in the low branches of a swamp willow. ‘What is it, my daughter?’ asked he. ‘Why do you sit here all alone every night? Why do you sigh and gaze at the moon till dawn?’

‘Father, I am so unhappy I could die!’ replied his youngest daughter, turning her pale, beautiful face to him. Her silver-blue gown glimmered in the moonlight, and water droplets fell one by one off her tiny, delicate hands and into the lake.

‘In my kingdom, Rusalka?’ asked the astonished Vodník. ‘Surely that cannot be!’

With a look of deepest yearning, Rusalka reached out towards the sky with her tiny, pale hand. ‘I want to leave the water and walk in the sun as a mortal!’ She uttered this last word with trembling rapture.

‘A mortal?’ The Vodník was even more astonished.

‘Yes, dear father, a mortal!’ she cried, rising. ‘It was you who told me: they have souls which are immortal, which rise up to heaven when they die!’

The Vodník was sore troubled. ‘Stay in the waters’ embrace. Do not wish for a mortal soul! Mortal souls are full of wickedness!’

‘And love!’ Rusalka cried ardently, reaching her arms up as though calling it to the host of stars above too.

‘By the eternal waters!’ exclaimed the Vodník. ‘Do you mean to say you love a mortal?’

‘Yes, father! A young prince often comes down to the lake to bathe. He is the most wonderful thing I have ever seen! He walks so tall and has such fine white skin. His brow is noble, his nose straight, his shoulders broad. Such hair he has, silky curls as black as the moonless midnight! And his dark eyes are even silkier-hued than our lake at twilight! But, father, he cannot see me, he cannot smile upon me! I embrace him, but he can see only the water which forms my body. How can he love me, how can he embrace me, if I am nothing but water which slips through his fingers? O father, I must become a human being so he can embrace me as I embrace him, and kiss me!’ She let an upheld handful of water trickle back into the lake as she spoke, watching it fall with anguished yearning.

The Vodník rose sternly up out of the water. ‘My daughter!’ he replied, in deep, booming tones, ‘If you become a mortal your sisters will weep every night, for they cannot help you then!’

But his ominous warning was hardly heard by Rusalka. ‘Father, he must be able to see me! Tell me how I can be made visible to his eyes!’

The Vodník raised his great hands in pleading. ‘If you surrender to a mortal you are lost forever!’

Rusalka turned mutely away, her hand gripping the willow’s wet brown bark. ‘He must be able to see me…’ Her pale blue eyes were upon the waters of the lake, but saw them not. The dark shadows in the depths were his black curls, the rippling waters his beautiful, ever-changing countenance, and the stars reflected on the surface the lights glittering in his eyes. Sad and pale she gazed at the lake.

The Vodník sighed. ‘I see it is useless to try enticing you back into the depths to join your sisters. There is one way your wish may be able to be granted,’ he continued reluctantly.

‘There is?’ She had turned instantly to him, and looked with quivering hope.

‘There is a witch, Ježibaba, who lives in the forest. Ask her for help.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Alas, my poor, pale Rusalka… Alas! Alas! Alas!’ And with that cry echoing over the troubled waters, he sunk despairingly down into the depths.

Rusalka reached out an entreating hand. But there was only a stirring remaining in the shadowy waters. He was gone. Holding tight to the damp willow, the water nymph shivered and turned back to the sky. It was as dark and shadowed as the waters of the lake. A pale mist was upon the meadow, and the waters lapped at the willow in low, hushed tones. A night bird’s lone call reached across the dark lake. Rusalka shivered again. Hugging herself tightly, she looked fearfully, mournfully about the deserted place.

Then the clouds parted and the moon’s silvery light flooded forest and glade. A smile of fragile, uncertain hope hovered on Rusalka’s lips. She lifted her hand out to the serene moon’s sad, gentle face.

‘O silvery moon in the heavens!’ called the water nymph, ‘you who shine upon each and all, you who travel the wide world, you see where mortals dwell. Tell me, silvery moon, where is my beloved? Oh tell me!’

A cloud darkened the moon’s light for a moment, veiling the waters in shadowy darkness. Rusalka started and clung to the willow. But the cloud passed and once more the moon smiled serenely down on the night.

‘Tell my beloved, O silvery moon, that I would hold him in my arms. Make him dream of me, just for a little while… Shine your light on him where he lies sleeping so far away. Shine your light on him and tell him I am waiting. If he is dreaming of me, let him not wake –’ The moon suddenly grew dim as cloud covered her. ‘Moon, do not go!’ cried Rusalka. ‘Do not go!’

But the moon was gone, and darkness was upon the waters once again.

‘How cold the water is…’ murmured the trembling nymph, floating her hand in the lake.

Then she slipped from the swamp willow into the waters and swam towards the place where the lake met the forest. ‘Ježibaba!’ she called, ‘Ježibaba!’

‘Poor, pale Rusalka…’ came the Vodník’s lamenting cry from the depths. ‘Alas…’

‘Ježibaba!’ she urgently called again, ‘Ježibaba!’ The water was deep beneath the ancient trees clinging doggedly to the clay bank. Their cast-off leaves floated on the still surface and rested on the damp, mossy stones at the water’s edge.

The nymph’s call was received by the forest, no echo returning. Then, from the silence, there came a reply:

‘Sighing, weeping, lamenting; who wakes me from my sleep before dawn?’ The voice cutting out across the lake was rough as two tree branches rubbing against each other in a storm.

Although Rusalka trembled at the witch’s coming, she drew onwards to the water’s edge. ‘Help me, Ježibaba!’ she cried. ‘Free me from these waters!’

The tall witch emerged from out of the forest’s blackness. Shrouded in long, tattered, trailing robes of inky blue and dark, airless green, she rustled the dead leaves as she went. Her long, skinny fingers gripped a wooden staff, and upon her head she wore a tall, pointed black hat. Lank and black as a raven’s wing, her hair fell down her back and over her shoulders like storm waters down a rock-fall. ‘Do I hear something?’ shouted she. ‘Do I smell something? Speak and tell me who you are!’

‘It is Rusalka the water nymph. A potion I beg from you, dear Aunt!’

A spark of orange light flickered in the witch’s muddy brown eyes. ‘Show yourself, nymph!’ she called, striking her staff upon the ground – whereon a stunned squirrel thudded down from the oak above.

‘I cannot come out of the lake,’ Rusalka replied mournfully, clinging to the slippery bank with her pale hands. ‘The waters, they hold me prisoner!’

‘Break yourself from their arms and come to me!’ commanded the witch, raising her hand. ‘Release her, waves!’

The nymph struggled desperately to free herself from the lake. The waters clung tightly to her, and the water lilies twisted and twined their long, pale green arms around her. Rusalka thought of her beautiful prince with his eyes of deeper blue and his curls of silken midnight. She thought of his softly radiant smile, his wistful gaze as he looked out over the lake, his gentle voice that murmured sweeter even than the riverlets which trickled into the lake.

Gathering all her strength, the nymph at last succeeded in dragging herself out of the water. She crawled onto the leaf-strewn forest floor.

‘Carry her, little feet!’ cried Ježibaba.

Rusalka staggered to her feet. She lurched and almost fell, but regained herself in time. With a great effort she willed first her left foot then her right forward. She was walking! The nymph almost laughed with delight.

The witch cackled a little too. ‘See, they already know what to do!’

Rusalka staggered to Ježibaba and fell to her knees at the witch’s feet. ‘Help me, Ježibaba!’ she cried. ‘You are wise, you know everything. You have learned all of Nature’s secrets. In the darkness of the night you enter into human dreams. The eternal elements hide nothing from you. You brew poisons and cures. You wield the powers of creation and destruction, of life and death. You can change a man into a wolf and back again. You are mistress of the mysteries of transformation!’

The witch nodded in satisfied agreement as Rusalka spoke. ‘True enough, true enough…’

The water nymph seized Ježibaba’s hand. ‘Mortal and immortal – you are both! Only you, magic-weaver, can make my heart’s wish come true! Help me, oh please help me!’

‘Yes, I can make any wish come true if it pleases me to. You who have beauty and freshwater pearls; if I help you what will you give me?’ Her small eyes narrowed as she looked at Rusalka.

‘If you transform me into a human being I will give you everything I have!’ cried the water nymph.

Ježibaba cackled wildly, throwing back her head and thumping her staff upon the ground. ‘Is that all? Ha! Ha! Ha!’

Thinking only of being in the arms of her prince, Rusalka felt no terror. ‘Yes, everything,’ she repeated.

‘So, you have grown tired of the water?’ The witch prodded Rusalka with her staff. ‘You want to be loved by a mortal, eh? You want to kiss the one you love and be kissed in return? I know it. I know it. That is what they all want! Ha! Ha! Ha!’ she chuckled, shaking her head.

‘You, wise one, guess everything,’ Rusalka replied, a faint flush reddening her pale cheeks. She reached out her imploring hand once more. ‘Give me a human body and a human soul!’

The witch looked silently at Rusalka with her strangely flickering eyes. Then she gave a brief, firm nod. ‘By the devil, I’ll do it!’

Ecstatic delight lit the water nymph’s face.

‘But you must give me your transparent water-veil in return,’ Ježibaba continued. ‘And if you fail to win your love, you will be cursed by the waters forever! They will imprison you in their murky depths and hold you there for eternity!’

‘Change me, transform me!’ begged love-struck Rusalka, unheeding in her youthful hope.

The witch’s face remained stern. ‘That will not end your suffering, for as a mortal you shall be mute to every human ear.’

Rusalka trembled a little, but she still held her hand out to the witch. ‘I must become a mortal!’

‘Do you not wish to speak to the one you love?’

‘If only he can look upon me, embrace me, kiss me…’ sighed the water nymph, ‘I will gladly sacrifice my tongue to win his love.’

‘Very well,’ said Ježibaba. ‘But heed this well,’ she continued, wagging her finger. ‘If you return to these waters cursed, your beloved will die here too. Your fates will be entwined.’

‘And – and what will that fate be?’ faltered pale Rusalka.

‘Eternal damnation!’ cried the witch, and her terrible words echoed and re-echoed across the dark, brooding lake.

The kneeling water nymph did not flinch. ‘Give me a human soul. The love of my precious human soul will triumph over this dark magic.’ She breathed those last words with a tender sigh, her eyes shining with longing and quiet certainty.

Ježibaba gave a curt nod. ‘Follow me to my hut. We will brew the potion together. Fourimoorifook!’

Rusalka followed the witch into her little hut and the door closed behind them. A red glow shone out of its window. Frightened wood nymphs came creeping out of the forest and peeped in through the window. A shower of sparks soon burst out of the chimney and sent them scattering with shrieks of alarm. But presently they crept nervously back as a bubbling and a boiling noise seethed within.

‘Fourimoorifook!’ came Ježibaba’s incantations. ‘The mist is lifting in the glade. One droplet of dragon’s blood, ten drops of bile, a bird’s heart still beating, add to the pile. Stir, my tomcat, stir the brew! Fourimoorifook! It will not hurt a bit. Drink this and you’ll have mortal body and soul, drink it and your tongue will be wooden! Hasten, my tomcat! Pour the brew into her mouth! Not another word. Fourimoorifook!’

The sound of boiling and hissing faded, the sky cleared, and the wood nymphs slipped silently back into the forest as the glow of morning appeared over the lake. A horn trumpeted bright and ringing in the distance.

But from the depths came the Vodník’s lamenting cry: ‘Poor, pale Rusalka! Alas! Alas! Alas!’

The sound of the horns drew closer. A hunter’s jovial song was heard in the nearby forest:



A young hunter through the woods was riding

When amid the trees he saw a white doe hiding.

Her eyes were deep and dark.

Thought he, Will my arrow find its mark?

Ride on, young hunter, do not stay

And aim your dart at that fateful prey!

From that hart’s white body keep away!

Thought he, Will my arrow find its mark?



The horns sounded again, and troubled ripples ran across the waters as a morning breeze visited the glade. Twigs crushed and snapped, and from the forest emerged the Prince, bow in hand. He was breathing hard, and sweat beaded his brow.

‘She appeared here, and then she vanished!’ he cried, looking frantically about the glade. ‘Through valleys and over mountains this strange prey roams! And here its tracks have now disappeared!’ He tossed aside his quiver of arrows. ‘Full of secrets and mystery, the water lures and invites me as if its chill embrace should cool my hunting ardour.…’ He turned and gazed down at the rippling waters. ‘My step falters; what is this strange desire I feel?’ His hunting bow dropped from his hand. ‘My arms are suddenly weak! Since first setting out on the hunt I sensed something. A strange magic holds me under its spell!’ The Prince fell to his knees at the water’s edge and filled his hand with the cool, crystal water.

‘There was no white doe!’ called an approaching hunter. ‘Stop! May God protect your soul! Your heart is as good as dead. What did your arrow pierce?’

The Prince’s hunting companions emerged from the forest.

He started to his feet. ‘The hunt is over; return to the castle at once. A strange magic haunts the forest today, and a yet stranger magic chills my heart! Go home, my friends. Leave me here alone!’

Uttering worried mutterings and murmurings, the hunters reluctantly departed. When they had gone, the Prince sat down on the shore of the lake. He stared down into the depths. What magic lived in the waters? What force dwelt there, calling him to fall into its embrace? What spell was upon him…?

And what was that presence he felt behind him? He quickly turned his head. A beautiful girl stood silently before him. She was barefoot and clad in a poor, plain grey dress. Her skin was as fair as the first light of the morning, her eyes were the crystal blue of a pure high mountain lake, and her long, waving hair streamed down her slender body in a cascade of palest gold.

The Prince jumped up. ‘Heavenly vision, are you a mortal woman or a fairytale?’

Rusalka – for it was she – smiled shyly at him. Her eyes shone with breathless hope and yearning.

‘Are you come to guard the precious creature I was hunting?’ asked the Prince, taking a step towards her. ‘Are you kindred-sister of the white doe, come to plead for her life? Or it is that you offer yourself as my hunting trophy?’

Smiling with shy rapture, Rusalka stretched her hands towards him. She opened her mouth to reply. But no words came. Her smile dimmed as the moon dims when a dark cloud passes before it. It lasted only a moment. Her smile returned, but remained a little more uncertain than before.

Gazing upon her with delight, the Prince gently took her hand. ‘Perhaps a secret seals your lips, or are you forever mute? If your lips are mute, I swear they will answer my kiss! Tell me what mystery it is that lured me here, that has been calling me to follow through thorns and over rocks so I on this happy day could feel the enchantment of your lovely eyes! What do you conceal in your heart?’ beseeched the ardent Prince. ‘If it is love for me, speak!’

Rusalka’s breathless hope and uncertain delight melted into rapturous relief. She threw herself into the embrace of the arms he held out. With a face of shining joy, she drew her hands down through his silken curls and across his cheeks.

‘Sisters, one of us is missing!’

The chorused cry came from the depths. Rusalka instantly shrunk from the Prince’s embrace and faltered fearfully at the water’s edge.

‘Dear sister, where are you?’

Trembling, Rusalka hurried back and forth along the shore in terror and doubt.

‘Up and down the valleys, through the forest!’ came the Vodník’s sad boom from the depths.

‘Sister, oh sister, where are you?’

Rusalka turned from the waters and clung desperately to the Prince. She trembled so her feet would not hold her up, but the strong embrace of his arms supported her.

‘I know you are but an enchanted vision that will fade into the rolling mists,’ said he, tenderly cupping her face between his hands. ‘Until that time comes, stay with me! The day’s hunt is over – what of it? You are the most precious of my prizes! Golden star shining in the night, my dream, come with me!’

Almost laughing with joy, Rusalka clasped his offered hand. No longer would she need the moonbeams to carry thoughts of love to her sleeping Prince. No longer would she embrace him only as a wave. He saw her; he loved her! What happy bliss! With light, hurrying steps she gladly allowed him to lead her away.





PART TWO







The gold-hued light of the dipping sun touched the castle and the oak trees growing all around. It stepped in through the windows of the banqueting hall and basked on the gallery and the sweeping staircase leading up to it. In front was a most ancient and mossy grove of oaks which stood in a circle around a pond, leaning their heads in towards each other like elders in council.

Into this scene came the kitchen boy. There was sauce on his cheek and broth down his front, a dusting of flour in his hair and a bright bloom on his face from standing near the hot ovens. He stepped a little stealthily and furtively, with much peeping and peering. He shut the side door, cast a final look, and crept on past the stairs. But a sudden voice stopped him mid-step.

‘Come, come, my dear boy, don’t keep your uncle Vaňek in the dark! What is all the bustle about? The hall is swarming with guests, and the kitchens are all fevered work, with spoons, plates and bowls on every table. As for the maids, they haven’t breath left to say two words!’

The boy crossed his arms with a very self-important air. ‘We of the Prince’s inner circle do know these things…’

‘Well then, tell your story,’ said his uncle, good-naturedly but growing rather impatient.

‘We are all in a great hurry, dearest Uncle Vanya,’ replied the boy, leaning in with a knowing, conspiratorial look. ‘From dawn till dusk and all through the night we work without rest or respite! And have you ever heard of such a thing? Just think of it!’

‘Of what, my boy?’ frowned the gamekeeper.

‘The prince found a creature in your forest and brought her home with him! It seems he wants to marry her. He came upon her deep, deep in your gloomy forest. But wherever he found her, I’d be afraid of her! She utters not a single word, she has not a drop of red blood, she goes around as if in a trance – a fine bride she’ll make!’

‘So the rumours I’ve heard are true!’ He shook his head. ‘As you say, it will not end well. God deliver us from evil. There is, I suspect, some strange sorcery behind the Prince’s infatuation.’

The kitchen boy’s eyes grew wide with fear. He crouched at his uncle’s feet where he sat on a bench beside the pond.

‘The forest is haunted by sinister powers,’ continued the gamekeeper. ‘Stranger still are the creatures which gather there at midnight. Weaklings are in danger of being caught by Ježibaba the witch, and at the lake the Vodník will drag you fast down into the depths.’

At this, the kitchen boy started up and peered nervously into the pool. All he saw was his own reflection, but it frightened him nonetheless. He snatched up a stick and poked at it a bit.

‘And any who see the wood nymphs unclothed go mad with desire for love,’ the gamekeeper added sternly. ‘Lord deliver us from that wickedness!’

‘Uncle, I’m frightened!’ cried the boy, tossing aside his stick and backing quickly away from the water.

‘I think I know very well why. May the Lord have mercy on your sinful soul!’

The kitchen boy shuffled and sullenly adjusted his cap. Then, making an effort to regain his earlier air, he shrugged and picked up the stick. ‘The Prince was once smiling and carefree,’ he said, poking about in the leaves. ‘But no longer! He has been changed. He wonders around as if in a dream. Auntie Háta, his old nurse, prays for him day and night. And when the priest heard of the creature from the forest, he came to warn our prince. But said the Prince: “No, no, she stays! I’ll not hear another word against her!”’

‘So that is why all the noble guests are here and why the pantry’s nearly bare!’ said Uncle Vaňek, stroking his beard. ‘And also why I had to quickly catch and bring all that game!’

The boy crossed his arms and gave a grownup sort of nod. ‘With luck, nothing will come of it and another woman will profit from our preparations! Old Háta says the Prince’s heart is fickle, that his love is already cooling. His head has been turned by a beautiful foreign princess. It is on her his mind now dwells.’

‘God be praised,’ said Uncle Vaňek, wiping his brow. ‘May He bless and keep our prince and give him peace. If I were him I’d chase out that forest creature before she drags me down to hell!’

‘Here comes the prince and his forest witch!’ the boy cried suddenly, pointing to one of the doors leading out onto the gallery.

The gamekeeper jumped up. ‘I don’t want to see her! May God save us all!’

And the two of them fled in opposite directions.

The sun had set and evening was upon the castle and the park. The dying day stained the sky red from west to east, and the forest-clad mountains were a dark, hazy blue in the distance. Rusalka came out on the prince’s arm attired in a beautiful gown of blue silk chiffon beaded with tiny river pearls. But radiant as her loveliness was, her face was sad and pale.

She lingered at the banister and gazed silently out at the dusky park.

The Prince watched her with troubled eyes. ‘You have now dwelt with me a week,’ he said standing on the steps as she passed down. ‘And still you seem but an apparition. In vain I search your eyes to find your secret! Will our marriage bring what I have long yearned for? Will you ever burn with passion as a true woman should?’

Rusalka turned her head away in silent anguish.

‘Why is your embrace so cold?’ cried the Prince. ‘Why do you flee from passion? Why do I tremble afraid when I hold you in my arms? In vain I try to banish this feeling, yet I cannot free myself from you – even if you were a hundred times colder I still would have to possess you!’

His final passionate words breathed a fragile delight across pale Rusalka’s face. But before she could take the Prince’s hand, a sound disturbed the peaceful dusk. It was the thick, dull rustle of costly silken skirts and the tip-tap of a lady’s fancy feet. It was the beautiful Foreign Princess. Her thick red hair was piled high on her head and adorned with glittering rubies. Her long, full red brocade skirt and green silk train whooshed along with her progress, a jewelled belt marked the curve of her form, and rings glimmered on her slightly plump fingers.

When she caught sight of the Prince and Rusalka down below, her eyes hardened and her nostrils flared subtly. Anger simmered in her heart. There that freakish, waif-like creature stands, in the place where I by rights should be, thought she. But if I cannot have him, neither shall she! They will not live in happiness if I have anything to do with it!

And the princess stepped forward. ‘Lover you may be, Prince, but you are still a host too – I trust you have not forgotten?’ She seductively tilted her head a little to the side. ‘Must your guests be but onlookers to your happiness, and partake of no enjoyment themselves?’ The foreign princess had come down the stairs, and now stood between the Prince and Rusalka.

‘Your reproach is justified, Princess,’ said the Prince, stepping up and bending to kiss the hand she held out. ‘From your lips I hear it gladly. Even the bridegroom, your highness, must be your servant above all else!’

Feeling a little more satisfied, the Foreign Princess grandly turned her eyes upon Rusalka. ‘How come this beauty who is queen of your heart looks on mutely while you neglect your guests?’ she demanded, pointing her jewel-weighted finger at the shrinking girl. ‘Are her eyes so full of feeling that she speaks to you through them alone?’

Rusalka regarded the foreign princess with pained, angry eyes. But she could say nothing.

‘My bride’s eyes have forgotten to remind me of my duty!’ said the embarrassed Prince. ‘Allow me to now make amends to you, Princess, for my earlier negligence.’ He offered her his hand.

But before the Foreign Princess could take it, Rusalka seized the Prince’s hand and fell to her knees at his feet.

‘What is the matter with you? Why do you tremble?’ the Prince demanded, angrily freeing himself. ‘Go, make haste to prepare yourself for the ball!’

And he turned from her and gave the Foreign Princess his escorting arm.

As he led the regal lady away, she looked bitterly back to Rusalka. ‘Dress in your finest gown; I might have his gallantry, but it is you who has his heart.’

Rusalka watched as the Prince and the Foreign Princess passed up the stairs and through the gallery. But her relief was stabbed with bitterness when she saw the Prince press the Foreign Princess’ hand to his lips as they paused in the doorway. Her rival’s gratified laughter showered on Rusalka’s ears like winter raindrops: bitingly cold and hard with ice. She turned away and clutched the banister with her pale, trembling hands. Night had fallen. The silver moon watched the darkened world from high in the heavens above. The all-seeing moon offered little comfort now. Sad and heartbroken, Rusalka departed through the gallery.

Lights now shone bright from the hall, whence festive music and merry laughter drifted. More guests were arriving in the hall by the minute. Long tables almost groaned beneath the weight of the food piled high upon them, and flowers from the meadows, forests and gardens decked the hall. Looking like a host of flowers themselves, the maidens passed in dressed in silks of pink, red, yellow, purple, green and blue. Jewels glittered at fair throats and dangled from delicate wrists, and their lace and gold headdresses rayed about them like halos.

A group of fine, handsome young lads stepped forward and offered their arms to the maidens. With faintly flushed cheeks and smiles all the brighter for their occasional shyness, they accepted and stepped out to dance, forming pairs and then circles. They circled faster, then spun away and were caught up by the lads, who tossed the light-footed girls high and set them down. The vigorous stumps of the lads’ boots and the laughter of the girls passed out through the open doors and drifted down into the night-cloaked park. A faint white mist trailed after the night here and there among the oaks and birches, like a bride’s tattered veil floating from her dark-haired head. This vaporous veil gathered thickest around the pool beneath the ancient oak trees.

There was a stirring beneath the water. Dark ripples rayed out to the mossy stones ringing it. A shape moved in the depths, rising closer and closer. It was the Vodník. His thick, dark, blue-and-green hued mane rose slowly up out of the waters. River pearls glimmered in it like fireflies in the night. His eyes, dark and blue as a deep lake, were full of sadness.

‘Poor, pale Rusalka!’ he lamented. ‘Caught in the humans’ web. Alas! Alas! Alas!’

With water streaming off him and water-plants clinging to him, the Vodník emerged from the pool to stand upon the rocks. From there, he looked in through the windows of the bright, gaily animated hall.

‘You cannot find in this world what my own realm is rich in, my poor Rusalka,’ he muttered, shaking his head. ‘Human or not, a primeval bond fetters you to the waters. Whether he loves you or not, he cannot be yours. Poor, pale Rusalka, caught in the web of human evil! Your sisters yearn to embrace you, the waters long to receive you. But when you do return to us, you will bring death with you. Weary of life will you come, and cursed eternally… Poor, pale Rusalka!’

Bubbles rose around the Vodník as he sank lower in the water. A joyful chorus sung by youthful voices came from the hall:



White roses were blooming

All along the roadside

As on a day fine and fair

A lad was riding

To see his maiden dear.



Hurry, my boy, and do not be hiding,

For near is the year

When you a man shall be evermore.

When upon this way

You come riding back as before,

It will be red roses that sway

Alongside the path and not white;

They are the first to succumb to the ray

Of the sun burning above us so bright.

The roses of fiery red

Shall adorn your bridal bed.



Within the hall, the smiling Prince gave the Foreign Princess his arm and led her to join the dance.

The Vodník sadly shook his head once again. ‘It is white water lilies which will be your sad companions, my poor Rusalka. No red roses will ever adorn your marriage bed…’

As the Prince danced with the Foreign Princess, he whispered low in her ear and looked attentively upon her, and here and there brushed her arm or neck with his fingers. The onlookers noted it well; there was much murmuring and shaking of heads among their ranks. As the hands of the great clock neared midnight, the Prince had not once offered Rusalka his hand to join the dance. With her eyes downcast and her pale hands tightly entwined, she shrunk in a corner. Now and then she started as a deer grazing a forest clearing might, and darted her wide blue eyes about the room. She saw the festive throng; handsome lads offering escorting hands to blushing favoured maids, matrons smiling as they remembered their own morning years, wise silver heads nodding in considered discussion, young husbands leaning in close to their fair brides. Rusalka began to tremble and shudder. It felt as though ice flowed in her veins. The waters called to her as the air calls to the hunted bird.

Desperate Rusalka flung open a door and stumbled into the gallery. Deathly pale and with tears making silvered paths down her cheeks, she ran from the castle and into the park. She flew to the pool, heedless of the mud and leaves her chiffon hem and silver slippers gathered as she went.

‘Rusalka, my daughter!’ cried the surprised Vodník.

The girl fell to her knees at the water’s edge. ‘Dearest father!’

‘I come to your splendid palace and find you weeping already?’

Rusalka grasped the hand he held out to her. ‘Save me, save me, father! A terror has seized me; how I tremble and quake! Woe that I ever betrayed you; woe to any of us who come to know the humans! Alas! Alas that I ever saw a human form! Have mercy on me, father!’

‘What is it, my child?’ asked he. ‘What has happened to you?’

‘Another’s allure has captured the Prince’s heart, a throbbing, red-blooded human beauty. I, Rusalka from the forest, am nothing to him. He has forgotten me!’

‘The Prince has rejected you?’ asked the Vodník. ‘But he loved you so fervently! You must persevere, for there is surely hope of winning him back.’

‘No, father. Useless, useless it is! My heart is empty.’ And she laid her cheek upon the mossy stone and gazed sad and pale into the waters. ‘All my charms are for nothing, for I am only half human. He thinks of me, his Rusalka from the forest, no more. He dreams only of her whose eyes burn with accursed human passion. I, born from the cold, clear waters, blaze with no such passion. Useless, useless it is. My heart is empty…’ Her chill tears rolled silently down and dropped into the waters.

The Vodník shook his head mournfully.

‘I am cursed by you and rejected by him, nothing but a faint echo of Nature’s elements!’ sobbed Rusalka. ‘I am not nature-spirit, nor am I woman. I cannot live, yet I cannot die!’ And she plunged her hand into the dully reflected face gazing at her from the dark deep.

A noise from the castle made Rusalka lift her head. It was the Prince and the Foreign Princess, who appeared in the gallery.

‘Oh, see them, father!’ she cried, reaching out to the waters. ‘Save me! Save me!’

The Prince led the Foreign Princess down the sweeping steps and twirled her in his arms under the moonlight.

‘A strange fire lights your eyes, my prince,’ said the Foreign Princess. ‘Your words are becoming more ardent, your glances sweeter. How they enchant me! Say, my host, what is the meaning of this? Where is your chosen bride, she who has no name and will speak none? Where has she fled to? She ought to see her prince now!’

‘Where has she gone?’ The Prince removed his arms from her and turned away. ‘God alone knows.’ He looked into the darkened park with troubled eyes. Then he turned back and smiled upon the Foreign Princess. ‘It is you who have caused this change, not merely the charms of this summer night and its glowing moon. If you like, call it a whim that I loved her for a little while. My Princess!’ – he seized her hand – ‘blaze as bright fire where the pale moonlight ruled before! Replace her wan light with your burning fire!’

The Foreign Princess drew her hand back. ‘And when my fire has burnt you and I am gone far, far away from you, what will you think of her lunar light then? Your silent sleepwalker will embrace you in her lovely arms – who will your heart leap for then? Will you forget me?’

Full of passion, the Prince took her hand and ardently pressed it to his lips. ‘You are like the red rose whose bloom is but fleeting! Only now do I see it is you my soul seeks to return my dying body to health!’

‘Now I see – I am being courted,’ the Princess said sourly. ‘The bridegroom does not know himself whether he courts me or her!’

‘What remains of that love which once entrapped me?’ said the Prince. ‘Its bonds I’d gladly break if you’ll be mine!’

Suddenly desperate, pale Rusalka ran out from the shadows and threw herself into the Prince’s arms.

‘Your arms are cold as ice!’ cried the frightened Prince, pushing her back. ‘Away with you, freezing beauty!’

A sudden shape appeared in the pool, lit bright by the light of the full moon. It was the Vodník. ‘Flee into that mortal woman’s arms if you will; Rusalka’s embrace you cannot escape!’ he cried. And he seized Rusalka and dragged her down into the depths.

The Prince fell to his knees at the Foreign Princess’ feet. ‘Save me from the hand of this mysterious force! Help me! Save me!’

The Foreign Princess threw back her head and laughed a cruel, mocking laugh. ‘Go, follow your bride into the dark abyss of hell!’ she cried.

And still laughing and chuckling, she stalked haughtily away to rejoin the feasting throng within.





PART THREE







A rumpled grey sky hung low over the forest. The lake in the glade dully reflected its grim, shaded light, murmuring in ominous tongue as dark ripple chased dark ripple to the shore. It was a silent shore they beached upon. No birds sing to such heavy, brooding skies, and, like fishing boats do, the dragonflies stayed harboured in their rushy moorings.

But one living creature – if she can be called so – stirred beneath these silent, sad clouds which hung overhead like tattered scraps of rag caught in a thorn bush. It was Rusalka. Her skin was wan and white, her hair an ashen grey, and her eyes now not crystal lakes, but murky marshland pools. On an old swamp willow she sat, mournfully trailing her fingers in the waters.

‘Cruel waters who have fettered my to your depths’ said she, ‘why can I not die in your cold embrace? Robbed of my sisters and my youth, and forever banished because of my ill-fated love, I grieve alone in these cold, bleak currents. My sweet charms I have lost, my beloved has cursed me. I seek my sisters in vain, and in vain do I long for the world. Those enchanted summer nights when the white water lilies bloomed; where are they now? Gone, gone never to return… O cruel waters who have fettered me to your dark, icy deeps, let me, oh let me die in your cold, pitiless embrace!’

The cursed nymph’s cry moaned low over the lonely waters and silent forest. Perhaps it was few listening ears who heard it, or perhaps it was many. But there was only one pair whose owner answered.

Wrinkling her nose and narrowing her shrewd little eyes, Ježibaba the witch came shuffling out of her cottage. ‘Ah!’ croaked she, ‘Rusalka has returned, has she? You’ve been gone but a gnat’s wing-flap. And looking so tattered and white. Why do you sit here all alone disturbing my peace with your lamenting? Were human kisses not to your taste, eh?’ She prodded Rusalka with her staff. ‘Did the warmth of his bed fail to thaw the cold in your veins?’

‘Alas,’ cried Rusalka, ‘they all have betrayed me and everything is lost!’

‘Your joy was short, but after kissing human lips, your suffering will be long,’ the witch replied sternly. ‘A man is an outcast of Nature, uprooted from the earth long ago. Woe unto them who longed for his love and because of his betrayal are now cursed!’

‘Is there truly no hope for me? Surely you can help, wise auntie?’ implored Rusalka.

‘Your lover has abandoned you for another, and again you expect Ježibaba to help you?’

‘Please help me, auntie!’

‘After tasting worldly pleasures you now wish to return to your sisters in the waters?’

Clasping her hands in pleading, the wan nymph nodded her head.

Ježibaba grunted. ‘Very well. I will tell you what to do – although whether or not you will heed my counsel is another thing!’ She planted herself upon a rotting tree stump and set her staff down. ‘There is but one thing which will wash Nature’s curse from you: human blood! You sought love in the arms of a mortal and that is the price you must pay. Do this and you will return to what you were ere I changed you.’

‘Rusalka quivered. ‘Human blood?’

‘Nothing but the warm blood of a man will ease your suffering and make you happy again!’ And the witch struck her staff upon the ground – whereon a stunned squirrel fell from the branches above. ‘With your own hand you must take the lifeblood of he who seduced you!’

Rusalka’s smile of growing joy was snuffed in an instant. ‘Ježibaba,’ cried the nymph, ‘have pity; you ask too much!’

The witch pressed a knife into Rusalka’s hand. ‘Take this blade and plunge it into his heart – vow you will obey!’

‘No!’ cried Rusalka, and she tossed the knife far out into the lake. ‘I would rather suffer my curse for all eternity than take a single drop of his blood. I’ll live in unending torment, rejected and despairing. But he, my mortal beloved, must live happy!’

The witch burst into wild, cackling laughter. ‘Longing enticed you to brave life among the foolish, deceitful humans, and yet now you haven’t the strength to spill a drop of mortal blood? Mind you, man only became man when he stained his hands with blood, when through passion he killed his brother!’ The witch spat over her shoulder and poked away a toad that hopped at her feet. ‘And you, pale, insipid water-bubble, thought to win a man with love! Bah, you empty moon-ray, good for nothing!’ The witch struck Rusalka with her staff. ‘Go, have it as you wish; suffer through all ages, dry up in longing for your beloved mortal!’

After giving the nymph a final contemptuous poke, Ježibaba shuffled away into the forest, muttering and mumbling sourly to herself all the while.

Rusalka dragged herself up from where she had fallen amid the leaf-mould. She staggered to the lake edge and slipped into the darkening waters.

‘Banished, rejected, despised, I sink into the lonely deeps without my sisters,’ she sorrowed. ‘Beloved Prince, never again will I see you. Never! Alas! Alas!’ And she submerged in the lake.

But voices cried all around her as she descended: ‘You fled from our games and left us to walk among mortals. Now you are cursed, do not come near us! She who has known a man’s embrace may not join our dance! We will flee at your approach. Your grief and suffering frighten us; we cannot enjoy our games with you near. Play with the willow-the-wisps upon the marsh at night! Linger at the crossroads and lead human souls astray with your pale blue light. Lure them to their graves in the murky depths! But to us do not dare return!’

Silence reclaimed lake and glade. The skies had faded with the dying day. Only an evening glow now remained low in the west. A pair of water birds passed over the forest and glided down to settle on the lake. Then a short while later, another thing came into the scene. Shuffling, scowling, looking over his shoulder – it was the kitchen boy, with the gamekeeper, dear uncle Vaňek, pushing him along.

‘Frightened, my boy?’ the gamekeeper asked gruffly. ‘There is no need to be so silly; many have come here before us. Call at her door and calmly say what we ordered you to say: An evil forest creature came to the castle, the Prince is gravely ill and has lost his mind, and old Háta begs Ježibaba’s advice!’

The kitchen boy planted his feet as though stuck in treacle. ‘My knees are knocking and my eyes are foggy – for heaven’s sake, uncle, go in my stead!’

‘I’ve walked past this way many times during the dark night hours,’ Vaňek replied placidly, holding the boy in place (for he had turned to flee!) ‘Only the worst coward is afraid of an old woman!’

‘It is you with your stories who frightened me, uncle. You oughtn’t be surprised that I’m afraid of the dark forest!’

The gamekeeper waved a dismissive hand. ‘It was just idle talk, boy, idle talk – I exaggerate a little from time to time! Now, never mind what I said. Go quickly and’ – the gamekeeper grasped the boy just in time before he could sneak off – ‘go quickly and summon the old hag for her answer.’

They were now near the witch’s cottage. Uncle Vaňek pushed his nephew forward and pointed at the door.

But again the boy’s feet stuck fast. ‘I’m in such a fright I’d do nothing but mumble! Better if you ask her yourself!’ Step by step he retreated backwards...

The gamekeeper’s stick arrested his progress. ‘If you were my son I’d be ashamed! And just to show you how a real man walks without fear, I’ll call her myself.’

‘No, no –’ the boy was shaking his head and tugging at his uncle’s sleeve – ‘don’t call her!’

‘Ježibaba!’ called the gamekeeper, ‘Ježibaba! Hola there, hola!’

‘Who’s making that noise? Who’s calling me?’ croaked the witch, coming shuffling out of her cottage.

The kitchen boy instantly darted to hide behind his uncle. He cowered there with eyes round as saucers and knees knocking together as he shuddered and shook.

The witch wrinkled her nose and stubbed her staff impatiently on the ground.

Quickly the gamekeeper thrust his nephew in front of him. ‘Old Háta s-sent us h-here, Ježibaba, to ask for your advice!’ he stammered, trembling at the knees.

‘And as payment for that bit of wit, she sends me this sapling to eat?’ Frowning, Ježibaba pinched the boy’s arm and poked at his ribs. ‘I see this cornstalk needs fattening. But after, he’ll make a tasty roast!’ She smacked her lips with relish.

The kitchen boy flapped desperately at her grasping, pinching fingers. ‘Let go of me, let go of me! Uncle, you heard: she wants to eat me! Uncle!’

‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ The witch was shaking with laughter. ‘Bah, you scrawny mite – a bad bit of meat you’d make, dim-witted creature! Hell can have you and your clan to swallow whole! Now don’t be standing there rattling your teeth any longer; tell me what you want!’

‘Our – prince is – very – very sick,’ recited the boy, fixing his round eyes directly ahead. ‘A – great – sorceress – cast a – spell upon him! Yes indeed.’ His eyes wandered to the departing path. But his uncle’s stick poked in his back before his feet could follow. ‘The Prince brought her to the castle and gave her everything she could wish for,’ the boy continued bravely. ‘He loved her as he loves his own life. It was all arranged; the pretty witch was to be his bride. But she didn’t wait for their wedding day. Once the web of her spell was drawn tight, the faithless witch all of a sudden disappeared. The castle is still under her spell. I suppose the devil himself must have yanked her back to hell!’

Suddenly the Vodník emerged from the lake. ‘Who did you say took her?’ he boomed. ‘Who did you say she betrayed?’ Dark and glistening in the rippling waters, his rearing form made a terrifying sight. ‘A curse upon the one who sent you here! You low, snivelling creatures, weavers of lies! It is he, your prince, who betrayed her and brought the curse upon her!’

‘The Vodník, the Vodník!’ shrieked the gamekeeper. And, wild-eyed and trembling from top to toe, he threw aside his stick and his bag and took to his heels.

‘Uncle, uncle, wait, for heaven’s sake! Uncle!’ cried the kitchen boy, fleeing as best he could but trailing behind.

Soon they were gone, never to return.

‘With all the might that is mine I will take my revenge!’ roared the Vodník, in a terrible voice.

Cackling wildly, Ježibaba hobbled back to her cottage.

Night had now fallen and the moon was above the treetops, peeping over and peering into the secret glade, where her serene silver countenance gazed back from the dark lake surface. Shapes flitted to and fro among the trees. They wove and danced and turned.

The trio of wood nymphs danced out into the moonlit glade. One silvery-voiced nymph sang:



Hair, golden hair have I,

Around which at night whirls the firefly.

My pearly hand now has loosed my hair from its stays

And the moon above is combing it with her silver rays.



Her sister twirled forward:



Feet, white feet have I,

Upon them in the glade I go running by.

Barefoot I’ve been dancing, with dew my feet have been washed clean,

And the moon above has shod them with slippers of golden gleam.



And the third nymph sang:



Slender, my limbs are slender,

In the glade they glisten in splendour.

Wherever in the glade with my lovely form I traipsed,

I find dresses of silver moonbeams are around it draped.



‘Let us dance, sisters!’ they sang together, joining hands and whirling in a circling throng. ‘Let us dance in the soft evening breeze! It’s nearly that time when the Vodník calls us up from the reeds!’

‘Oh, there he is, there he is, already mending his nets!’ cried the first wood nymph, pointing to where the Vodník was moving in the shallows.

‘Hey, old father river! Heya, heya, hey!’ they sang, skipping down to the shore and tripping from boulder to boulder, circling around him. ‘Try to catch us if you can, and the one you catch, old man, and do not miss, might reward you with a kiss! But, heyda, heyda, hey, then your wife will box your ears next day!’ On they danced, splashing water at the Vodník with their fine white feet.

The Vodník sadly shook his matted mane. ‘Cease your games, my golden-haired children. For, alas, our native waters have been polluted by human evil.’

The wood nymphs stood still. ‘Who is it that has spoiled our carefree dance?’ they asked, their eyes growing grim. ‘Tell us!’

‘Tell us!’ echoed her sister.

‘Tell us!’

‘In the dark depths, rejected by her sisters, poor, pale Rusalka sits sorrowing. Alas! Alas! Alas!’ cried the Vodník. And he slowly submerged into the lake.

The wood nymphs looked at each other.

‘My eyes are misted with tears, and suddenly I feel cold,’ said the first nymph, shuddering.

‘Dark clouds have blotted out the moon,’ said the second, stepping to the shore.

‘Darkness oppresses my being!’ cried the third. ‘Sisters, let us flee this place!’

The wood nymphs darted away and faded into the shadowy forest.

The waters whispered to the night, and the dreaming willows dipped their tresses low into the lake. The nocturnal breeze shivered in the birch leaves and rustled the grass heads out in the glade and the purple irises at the shore. An owl cried shrilly in the distant forest, and closer, a startled water bird rose from among the reeds.

Then a sudden movement disturbed the night. It was the Prince, who came running out of the forest like a madman, his eyes wild and vacant, his dark curls in disarray, his short cloak hanging from him by a thread.

‘Where are you, my white hart?’ he cried desperately. ‘My dream, my silent vision! Will there never be an end to my grief and my constant searching?’ With his dark eyes wild, he looked franticly about the glade. ‘Day after day, driven by longing, I seek you in the forest! At the approach of night I feel your presence near. I look for you in the moonlit mist. I search for you everywhere – my beloved dream, come to me!’

Breathless and pale, he fell to his knees at the water’s edge. With a hand bleeding from the forest thorns, he dipped into the cool, crystal water and watched the drops he brought up trickle through his fingers. He gazed out over the mysterious waters, which murmured softly in the darkness. Then, with a clammy dew beading his brow, he lifted his head and looked anew at the tall trees looming out of the night.

‘Here, here is the place it happened!’ he whispered, as recognition came upon him. ‘Speak, silent forest. Tell me your secret…’ His yearning gaze wandered the water’s edge. ‘O beloved phantom, where are you? Where…?’

A rustle came from somewhere. The prince started to his feet and run towards the sound. ‘Where are you, my white hart?’ he cried, becoming frantic once more. ‘Where are you? By all that still remains in my dead heart, I implore heaven and earth, gods and demons: speak to me, tell me where she is! Show yourself to me, beloved!’

The Prince stopped. The sound had brought him to the bleak marsh. Grassy islands stood here and there among the grey, murky water, and here and there a black, bare-branched tree was stark against the dim sky. A lonely wind wandered the marsh, moaning among the reeds, disturbing the glassy waters, parting the tall grasses as if searching for something lost. A presence drew the Prince on. His feet moved as if compelled by an invisible force. The wind that wandered the marsh blow back his dark curls and cooled his fevered cheeks. Entranced, he walked onwards.

Then, slowly and silently, moon emerged from behind the clouds.

‘Do you still remember me, my love?’ asked a sad voice of tenderness. ‘Do you think of me sometimes, beloved?’

The Prince slowly turned. Illuminated by the silvery moon, Rusalka stood above the dark, still waters. She appeared as if a veil of ash had been cast over her. Her face was wan, her eyes were grey, and her once-golden hair now looked like grass stalks after a fire had passed through them, ready to fall into dust at the lightest touch.

Reaching out with her pale, translucent hand, she stepped towards him. ‘Do you still recognise me, my love?’


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