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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, 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 chuckled 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.