Monday, December 28, 2020

The Silver Forest, a Serbian folk tale.

Tales of the Uncanny by Václav Černy, Zlata Černá, and Miroslav Novák.
Published in Czechoslovakia, 1976.

The Silver Forest

People have always been lured by the mysteries of deep, shadowy forests from the beginning of time. As long as they gathered the fruits of the forest, or felled trees in clearings dappled by the sun or on the forest's edge, they felt content. But when the path led deeper into the shadow of the forest, uneasiness fell upon them. Here the mysterious gloom thickened and boulders covered with moss loomed up in the path. The surface of murky pools no longer mirrored the blue sky. Only an occasional breath of air or the splash of frogs disturbed its somber calm. The lonely cry of birds and the cracking of dry twigs were the outward signs of the hidden life of the forest.

Not only did shy animals hide in the green half-light, but also mysterious beings lived here. These beings were seldom in sympathy with people. Phantom lights in the swamps tempted the wanderer from the safety of the dry paths; ugly "wild-women lurked in the deserted glades. Their wild dancing caused the death of anyone who joined them and did not succeed in escaping in time.

A thousand dangers threatened any man who boldly entered the twilight of the forest. And only very few ever succeeded in reaching the place where beautiful wood-nymphs gathered for their songs and dances under the tall spreading oak tree whose leaves shone with gold. So strictly did they guard their secrets, that every dare-devil who spied on them was cruelly punished. And yet sometimes the nymphs took pity on a lonely hunter or a lost wanderer and took him or her amongst themselves as a brother or sister. Songs were sung about such people, even though they spoke reluctantly of their adventures.

In one village, there lived an old man who had an only son named Dushan. The father was a wise and intelligent man and so he did not make Dushan stay at home with him. When he grew to the age when he could support himself, his father sent him out to gain experience of the world.

"There are many people in the world, and many trades and much useful knowledge. Go and discover for yourself what is right for you. When the time comes, you will return home."

So Dushan went. He walked through villages and towns, he met Christians and Turks. He studied various trades, but in the end his heart was captured by the violin. From the moment that he succeeded in playing it, he never again parted with his violin. Whenever he was grieved by the avarice of men or the injustice of their lot, he took out his violin and played until his sadness passed. And he loved to play it just as much when the sun shone brightly and gaily dressed girls danced in a circle.

In his travels Dushan learned many things and he understood many things, but still he did not feel that the time had come for him to return home. His hands were just as empty as when he had left and he had nothing remarkable of which he might be proud.

And so he wandered on. Once, when he had left a noisy city behind him, he was attracted by a soft green footpath. He turned to follow it and walked until he came to a forest. Silence encompassed him, disturbed only here and there by the cry of jays. Dushan lost track of time and of the way back and he let himself be carried on by the hushed pathways, trodden down by animals.

The sun had already set long ago and the forest had grown dark. Shreds of light white mist rose from the ground to hang among the trees. Suddenly a bright moon rose above the tall trees and in that instant the forest was utterly transformed. The trees towered high, their leaves shone with gold and their trunks glistened with ancient silver. Smoke was rising above the trees, and the flames of a fire flickered in the distance. Dushan caught a glimpse of strange beings dancing around the fire. They were winged maidens dressed in long flowing dresses.

Dushan started in fear. At once he remembered the many tales he had heard about evil wild-women and beautiful but cruel wood-nymphs. He did not dare to approach the fire, but at the same time he was loath to forego this wondrous sight. So after a moment's hesitation he sat down quietly at the foot of the spreading oak tree under which he stood and watched, spell-bound, to see what would happen. 

A group of winged maidens drifted away from the fire and slowly moved closer to the place where he was hidden. The maidens were dancing in the light of the moon, crossing from the darkness of the tree's shadow into the moon's bright radiance, their long dresses catching on branches and merging with the white mist. A gentle singing accompanied their dancing. Dushan could not restrain himself and at the sight of such beauty, he sighed aloud.

Instantly there was pandemonium among the nymphs. Their singing stopped abruptly and the air was awhirl with the beating of their wings. The nymphs searched for the intruder who had stolen into their midst. The dark shadow of the spreading oak tree did not protect Dushan. The nymphs caught sight of him and in the very same moment all of them fixed him in the stare of their evil eyes. At that moment Dushan found that he could neither speak nor see.

He found himself in total darkness and he could not even plead for mercy. His lips were unable to move and in vain, he stretched his arms out to where he believed the nymphs were. They no longer paid any attention to him and began to dance once more. Dushan began to weep, for there was no help for him now, and he must perish wretchedly in the depths of the forest.

Suddenly he remembered his violin. It would tell his tale of sadness to these heartless creatures. He settled down beneath the tree and began to play. He played in the dark forest and in the bright light of the moon, though he saw nothing of it. He told of the beauty which he had allowed to entice him, wistfully he sang of his pain and his grief. The nymphs stopped their dancing and listened to Dushan's song.

When he finished playing, they darted off into the forest and searched for healing herbs which would break their spell. One applied the healing balm to his eyes, another brought healing water and gave it to him to drink. Dushan's vision and speech were restored. The nymphs took him amongst themselves as a brother and he stayed with them for a long time and accompanied their dances with the song of his violin.

After many years he returned to the world of people and to his native land. But it is not without reason that people say that the forest leaves its mark on a person to the end of his days. Dushan was often silent; it seemed as if he lived in another world. And year after year he would disappear into the forest for days on end. 

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