Supernatural Czech Fairy Tale
Also by Odelia
(A colonial New Zealand-set Victorian romance)
Want of a Wife: A Sweet Regency Romance Novella
The Heart of
Shire Medieval Mysteries, Book 1)
Little Demon Who Couldn’t
& Wisdom from the Pen of
For more on
these books, visit
ODELIA FLORIS 2017
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
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
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.
catch us, you’ll not catch us!’ called her sister, springing from
mossy stone to mossy stone at the water’s edge.
slow, you’re too slow!’ laughed another, hanging from the
branches of the willow and trailing her slender legs in the water.
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…’
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
‘Come and get
us, come and play with us!’ they called, and bright was their
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
‘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
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.
The Vodník was even more astonished.
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
The Vodník was
sore troubled. ‘Stay in the waters’ embrace. Do not wish for a
mortal soul! Mortal souls are full of wickedness!’
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
‘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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Then she slipped
from the swamp willow into the waters and swam towards the place
where the lake met the forest. ‘Ježibaba!’ she called,
Rusalka…’ came the Vodník’s lamenting cry from the depths.
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:
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.
trembled at the witch’s coming, she drew onwards to the water’s
edge. ‘Help me, Ježibaba!’ she cried. ‘Free me from these
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
Speak and tell me who you are!’
‘It is Rusalka
the water nymph. A potion
I beg from
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
from their arms and come to me!’ commanded the witch, raising her
hand. ‘Release her, waves!’
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
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.
little feet!’ cried Ježibaba.
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!’
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
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
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.
transform me into a human being I will give you everything I have!’
cried the water nymph.
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!’
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!’
transform me!’ begged love-struck Rusalka, unheeding in her
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
A young hunter
through the woods was riding
When amid the
trees he saw a white doe hiding.
Her eyes were
deep and dark.
Will my arrow find its mark?
Ride on, young
hunter, do not stay
And aim your
dart at that fateful prey!
hart’s white body keep away!
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.
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
soul! Your heart is as good as dead. What did your arrow pierce?’
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!’
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,
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
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
‘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
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!’
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.
where are you?’
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
sister, where are you?’
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
‘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!’
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.
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
‘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.
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
‘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!’
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.’
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.
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
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,
I cannot free myself from you – even if you were a hundred times
colder I still would have to possess you!’
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
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.
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
the foreign princess with pained, angry eyes. But she could say
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
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
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
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.
Rusalka!’ he lamented. ‘Caught in the humans’ web. Alas! Alas!
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!’
around the Vodník as he sank lower in the water. A joyful chorus
sung by youthful voices came from the hall:
All along the
As on a day
fine and fair
A lad was
To see his
my boy, and do not be hiding,
For near is the
When you a man
shall be evermore.
When upon this
You come riding
back as before,
It will be red
roses that sway
path and not white;
They are the
first to succumb to the ray
Of the sun
burning above us so bright.
The roses of
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.
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.
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?’
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?’
allure has captured the Prince’s heart, a throbbing, red-blooded
human beauty. I, Rusalka from the forest, am nothing to him. He has
‘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.’
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
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!’
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!’
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 Prince fell to
his knees at the Foreign Princess’ feet. ‘Save me from the hand
of this mysterious force! Help me! Save me!’
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
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
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.
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
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
‘Please help me,
worldly pleasures you now wish to return to your sisters in the
Clasping her hands
in pleading, the wan
nymph nodded her head.
‘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.’
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
you must take the lifeblood of he who seduced you!’
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!’
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
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.
herself up from where she had fallen amid the leaf-mould. She
staggered to the lake edge and slipped into the darkening waters.
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!’
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.
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
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!’
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
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
‘No, no –’
the boy was shaking his head and tugging at his uncle’s sleeve –
‘don’t call her!’
called the gamekeeper, ‘Ježibaba! Hola there, hola!’
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.
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!’
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!’ shrieked the gamekeeper. And, wild-eyed and trembling
from top to toe, he threw aside his stick and his bag and took to his
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.
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
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
feet have I,
in the glade
I go running by.
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
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,
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
The wood nymphs
stood still. ‘Who is it that has spoiled our carefree dance?’
they asked, their eyes growing grim. ‘Tell us!’
echoed her sister.
‘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 wood nymphs
looked at each other.
‘My eyes are
misted with tears, and suddenly I feel cold,’ said the first nymph,
have blotted out the moon,’ said the second, stepping to the shore.
oppresses my being!’ cried the third. ‘Sisters, let us flee this
The wood nymphs
darted away and faded into the shadowy forest.
whispered to the night, and the dreaming willows dipped their tresses
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!’
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
‘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?
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,
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
Reaching out with
her pale, translucent hand, she stepped towards him. ‘Do you still
me, my love?’