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Fickle Muses an online journal of myth and legend

Serpent by Kat Heatherington

“Serpent” by Kat Heatherington

 

Rusalka
by Beth Camp

I was nine years old.  The snows had melted, spring grasses were knee high, and the fields were finally dry enough for plowing.  My mother and her friends carried their baskets of laundry to the edge of the D’nestre at the far end of the village.  My basket was heavy, for I carried my sisters’ dresses as well as my own in the cane basket Papa had made for me.

At the river, I waded into the shallow water near my mother.  The women were telling the story of Rusalka once again, admonishing each other that when Rusalka Week came, no one would be allowed to wash clothes, go swimming, or walk near the river.  Rusalka, I thought, the girl who lived in the bottom of the river and who sometimes climbed up into the willow trees to sing songs to the young men passing by.  Sometimes the young men never returned home.

I spread wet blouses on bushes that bordered the river, listening as the women started talking about who might be getting married and how much work there was to do.  We watched the men from the village, walking in twos and threes, on their way to cut grass in the fields, each carrying his scythe.  Our men were studying Torah in the synagogue.

“Devorah, don’t go too close to the deep,” warned Mother.

I nodded and dug my feet into the white sand, watching the sand cover my toes, happy for a break from working.  Was the very bottom of the D’nestre River as white as this?  If I looked, could I see Rusalka?  I glanced over at Mother.  She pounded our sheets on the rocks with shiny trails of soap floating out on the river’s surface like a veil.

The women kept talking, their whispers lost in the sound of the river, their soap suds clouding the water.  I edged my way along the bank, around the bend, and past the willow trees leaning out over the water.  Soon the only noise I could hear was the sound of the river itself.

I crawled out on the big gray river rocks as close as possible to the deepest part and leaned over, plunging my head under the water.  I could see underneath the waves, through the clear water, all the way to the bottom of the river where fishes hid by smooth flat stones.  I looked and looked, the cold water numbing my face, surrounding me, the sound of the river pulsing in my ears.  But I couldn’t see Rusalka.  Then it happened.  I could breathe underwater.  I was so surprised that I jerked my head out of the water, scaring a large carp that could have fed our family for a week.

Mother didn’t believe me.  “Hush.  Don’t you be telling me stories.  And don’t be telling these stories anywhere else.  Especially now.”  She spat in her hand and threw an imaginary handful of bad thoughts over her left shoulder.  She didn’t have to tell me what the rabbi would say.  He barely tolerated the annual festival honoring Rusalka.  “Breathing underwater,” my mother snorted.  “What kind of water child have I got?  And don’t you be telling your father about this.  He’s got enough to worry about.”

I knew this was true.  Right along with Shavuot, the spring festival of first fruits, and the village parade honoring Rusalka, came the first payments to the landlord’s agent.  Now there was a scary person.  He came to our village with a horse and cart, carrying away what produce the peasants had grown and what little gold we had.  When he brought soldiers, all the women and children stayed indoors.  Sometimes we heard stories about Jewish quarters in other villages burned to the ground, but this had not happened in our village. 

“Our landlord is enlightened,” Papa explained.  “He went to school in Prague, and when the old master died, he brought the villagers better ways of farming.  True,” Papa thought a bit, his long beard fanned out against his chest.  “Last year was not so good for the village.  The farmers didn’t have enough rain, but market day is thriving.  Even Uncle Vanya is expanding his store.  We’re not like those other villages,” my Papa said as he counted coins after a busy day at the bakery.

With the other men in our small quarter, he spent the day studying, pouring over the old books that explained the Torah, discussing each finer point.  Mother began work in the bakery very early in the morning, before the stars faded from the sky, while I, being oldest at nine, made breakfast for my three sisters, Shoshanna, one year younger than me, Marta and Malka, the twins, five years old, and my baby brother, Aaron, ten months.

Each week the routine was the same, until Friday.  On Fridays, Mother closed the bakery just after lunch, the warmest part of the day, and we walked to the river to do the laundry.  I loved this walk following the road away from the village, on the way to the fields where the peasants worked.  I had been promoted.  Now I helped to carry the laundry, while Shoshanna stayed home to care for the little ones.

Life seemed to return to normal after that day at the river.  Mother never told stories about Rusalka again.  On Fridays when we went to the river, she just gave me the look when I wandered along the riverbank.  “Stay away from the deep,” she would say.  But I knew what she meant.

I helped to lay the wet worn shirts out on the black rocks, shaking and turning the damp shirts as they warmed under the spring sun, grateful it wasn’t winter, and looking forward to the afternoon flurry of getting ready for the Sabbath.

Mother had told me to forget about the Rusalka stories, but I couldn’t.  At night, she swam through my dreams, her white eyes glowing and her green hair floating behind her.  Could I hear her sing underwater?

Each week at the river, I walked around the bend, past the willow trees, their branches draped over the water.  When I got to the deepest part of the river, I would lean out over the rocks and look for her.  I would hold my breath as long as I could and then let it go, watching the bubbles stream away from me as my cheeks grew numb from the cold river water.  I pretended I could hear her singing under the water, just for me.  Then one day, I saw her; I saw Rusalka.  Her smiling face floated closer and closer.  I could see her lips move and almost hear her voice.  With a mighty twist, I was pulled from the river.

“What are you trying to do?  Give me more pain?” Mother cried.  She shook me until my head ached.  I couldn’t speak.  Mother was right, but Rusalka had disappeared.

“No more.  Shoshanna will come to the river with me, and you will stay home.”  That night I heard Mother talking with Papa about her water child.  Her words were all mixed up, something about the women who came to the bakery, their stories about Rusalka, and me.  Only once a year, I heard Mother say.  The next week I stayed home, while Shoshanna went with Mother, carrying the basket that Papa had made for me.

***

Rusalka Week finally came.  After the Sabbath ended, and after Church on Sunday, everyone in the village gathered, all 2,000 souls dressed in their finest.  The grandmothers with silver braids piled high on their heads led the parade to the river, singing.  Young girls were next in the parade, carrying spring flowers, but we were not allowed to join them.  We marched together as a family, toward the end of the parade.  Mother held five garlands, one for each child.  She had picked the early blooming lilac and rare bell-shaped tulips, grown from bulbs, and according to the peddler, carried all the way from Turkey.

Mother looked beautiful, her hair covered in a richly embroidered kerchief, not even the tips of her braids showing, her white blouse worked in tiny red and blue flowers that matched our vests and skirts.  She carried Aaron, and the twins gathered close, holding to her skirts.

Papa waved to us from the front door of the bakery.  “I suppose you all must go,” he said.  He was dressed as usual, all in black, his round spectacles perched on his nose, his shoulders bent from studying Torah.  Mother leaned over to Papa and whispered in his ear.

As we walked to the river, I ran about.  I wanted to be close to the effigy of Rusalka, carried on a bed of flowers by four of the most important men in the village.  Her body was made of birch and straw, covered entirely with a dress of bright flowers.  Her hair was made of long strands pulled from the newly green willow trees, for everyone knew that Rusalka had green hair.

I kept rushing back to describe her to Mother until she said, “Hush.  Do not call attention to yourself.”  I noticed then that some of the villagers were looking at us and pointing at our rich clothing.  I wished I were invisible then, for I could still remember when someone threw mud bricks through our new bakery window.

As we walked toward the river, the grandmothers sang about spring, dancing under the moon, and how the rains would bring a good harvest if Rusalka accepted our gifts.  At the very end of the parade, the peasants marched, their heavy boots thumping on the road.  Here, the men passed a flask among themselves, hitting each other on the back.  The peasants were the first to see the circles Rusalka made when she came up from the river and danced in the fields.

We walked all the way to the river.  The grandmothers sang one last song before placing the effigy of Rusalka in the river.  We crowded close to the edge of the banks, watching the effigy as it floated and then slowly sank.  “In a way, they’re drowning her,” Mother explained, “to ensure we have good rains for the coming season.  May God protect us all.”  We threw our flowers into the river.  The garlands and bouquets floated down the river, drawn by the current.  Some of the bouquets came apart, their petals shimmering out on the current, but ours stayed intact, the lilacs and bright tulips magically floating.  We walked home, Mother holding our hands.  I felt as if I were flying, tethered to the earth only by Mother’s hand.

When we got home, Papa was sitting on the stoop.  “They took everything,” he said, gesturing to our house.  Inside was a shambles.  The bakery shelves were bare, the door to the big oven, twisted and broken, and the safe stood open and empty.  Upstairs, our good dishes were gone, and our bedding and clothes were strewn around.

“Why us?  Why today?” he cried, twisting his hands.

“Children, tidy this mess up here.  Papa, come back down to the bakery with me,” commanded Mother.  We did as we were told, but we knew it was the Cossacks.  They would come to kill us in the night because we were Christ killers.  Downstairs I heard the rumble of Papa’s voice.  “We made too much money.  Times are hard.”  A long pause.  “We should have given away more bread.”

“Papa, calm yourself,” Mother intervened.  “What makes this so different from any other year?  The agent, what did he take?  Did he take you?  Most of the villagers were at the parade, praise God.”

The next day, Uncle Vanya installed a new door on the big oven, and two villagers brought sacks of flour to replace those that had been taken.  No one spoke about the landlord’s agent or the Cossacks who had accompanied him.  They pressed Mother’s hands and told us not to worry.

***

When I was fourteen, the Cossacks did attack.  They came in the middle of the night.  I was sleeping next to Shoshanna behind the stove in our kitchen, when everyone began screaming.  Mother told us all to go to the river, to run as fast as we could, each taking a younger one with us.   “Hide, hide,” she cried, pushing us away.  “I’ll find you.  May the Angel of Death not take you.” 

I didn’t stop to look around me.  Shoshanna and I ran as fast as we could, each taking one of the twins with us.  All around us, I could see people running in every direction.  I could see the Cossacks on their big horses, shooting their pistols into the air, and then they weren’t shooting in the air any more.  We saw Papa running toward the synagogue.  He was going to protect the Torah.  Shoshanna pulled my hand.  “Devorah, Devorah, they hit Uncle Vanya.”  We looked at each other and ran as fast as we could, pulling the twins with us.

The Cossacks wheeled their horses around the small square in the center of our quarter and trampled the people there.  We ran until our sides hurt; all the women and children were running with us.  We should go hide in the field, I knew, but I felt safe running in the road with the women until the Cossacks came behind us, shooting their guns.  Shoshanna was hit and fell beside me, blood seeping from her back.  Marta screamed beside her and then was silent.  I fell down, and the horses thundered past us, trampling Malka. 

Behind me, the night seemed like day.  I could see the houses on fire as I crawled into the field, weeping, carrying Shoshanna’s body with me, leaving the crumpled bodies of Marta and Malka behind.  Away from the road, I thought, just away from the road.  If I lay quietly, the spring grass was just tall enough to hide us.  I could hear screams around me as pistol shots echoed along the road.  I knew I wasn’t safe if I stayed in the field.  I left my sister’s body there, and wriggled through the field, all the way to the river.  There I lowered myself into the cold water by the big black rocks and hid there, breathing the water just as if it were air.

I hid until the noise finally stopped, and all was quiet.  I didn’t know where to go.   I climbed the willow tree and slept in that place where the branches meet.  At dawn, I climbed down and returned to the village.  I felt 100 years old, for everywhere bodies lay and houses had been burned.  I discovered mother and father in a little clump as if they had been found together, mother’s arms still clung to my brother, Aaron.  I buried them. 

Only a few houses in the Jewish quarter remained standing.  Most were burned, their timbers still smoking.  I went into one of the remaining houses and took bread from the kitchen and a shawl from a peg near the back door.  I stood for a moment, looking at the death that surrounded me, and suddenly I vomited.  I couldn’t think in that place of death. 

I returned to the fields and found Shoshanna’s body and then the twins.  As the moon rose, I buried my sisters that night by the willow tree, close to the river.  Once again, I slept in the tree.  My tears filled the river as I thought of Rusalka and how she climbed the willow tree at night to sing sad songs.  What else was there for me to do?

Each night I climbed up out of the river, up to the highest limb of my favorite willow tree.  When the moon rose, I sang.  I wept for the life that once was, my family, my sisters, my baby brother, my mother and father.

One night a man walking on the road heard my singing.  I think he saw me through the willow trees along the river.  I wrapped my long green hair around my body like a shawl and was quiet as the moon dipped behind the hills.  In the morning, I returned to the river.

Each day except Sunday, I hear peasants walking along the road to their fields.  Each week, the women come to the river to wash their clothes, and in early June, the grandmothers lead a parade to the river with young people throwing garlands of roses and lilacs in the river, and crying out, “Rusalka!  Rusalka!”  Someday I may dance in the fields.


More of Beth Camp’s writing is available at: