Tales From The Land Of The Strigoi
Folk & Fairy Tales, Legends, Myths & Sagas from Romania
These are some of the most engaging stories that I’ve collected together for a long time. The Romanian folklore tradition has a vitality that really shines through in these traditional tales, and I’m sure, like me, you will fall just a little bit in love with some of these wonderful characters.
THE FAIRY OF THE LAKE
Adapted from an original story by M. Sadoveanu, translated by Lucy Byng in Roumanian Stories, published in 1921 by John Lane, The Bodley Head.
ONE EVENING OLD COSTESCU TOLD US about an adventure of his youth. The old mill of Zavu, he began, stands to this day close to the Popricani lake. A black building leaning towards the dark waters. The six wheels are driven by great streams of water which come rushing through the mill-race, and surround the house, washing through the cracks. Above the boiling foam which encircles it, the great building shakes with the unceasing roar of the water.
So it is today, so it was at the period when Costescu used to roam about those parts, and it is long, long time since then. This is how the story was told…
I remember a night like a night in a fairy tale, full of the silver light of the moon, a night when only youth could see, when only youth could feel.
It was in July. I was descending the lake by myself with my gun over my shoulder. Flights of duck passing above the forest of reeds lured me on. I followed their rapid flight through the clear atmosphere, the black specks became gradually smaller until they were lost to sight in the rosy clouds of the setting sun. I passed above the weir, where the waterfall brawls, between the bushy willow-trees which guard the narrow path, and approached the mill. The green stream swept through the mill-race, the foaming water boiled round the black building, and in the yard, unyoked and ruminating, the oxen slept beside the waggon.
The old man, the miller, the great-grandson of Zavu, descended from the mill bridge with his pipe in the corner of his mouth. In the deafening roar of the water and the creaking of the wheels men waited in silence amid the luminous spray that filled the old building.
"Good health to you, my old friend Simione!"
"Thank you, sir. How goes it with the land? Grinding good flour?"
This was the old man's usual question - was the country grinding good flour?
"Good, my old friend Simione!"
"Praise be to God!" said the old fellow. "But how are you, sir? You never come to see us. The duck give you no peace!"
"No, they give me no peace. I mean to lie in wait on the bank tonight. Perhaps luck will come my way."
"Good, may it be as you wish. See, Zamfira will show you the way."
Just at that moment appeared the miller's niece. She was a strange girl of sixteen years of age, of middle height and thin, but with well-developed muscles. Her cheeks were sunburnt, and she had two grey eyes, eyes so restless and so strange, and of such beauty and such brilliance as I have never seen since. She had not regular features, but the grey eyes beneath the heavy, arched brows gave her an unusual and radiant beauty.
At the old man's words she stopped suddenly, and said quickly with twinkling eyes, “I don't want to show him the way!"
"Why not?" I asked with surprise, while the old man smiled.
"Because I don't want to!" said Zamfira, looking at me askance.
"Very well," said the old man quietly, "don't take him!"
The girl looked at me searchingly, through half-closed eyelids, and then cried sharply, "I'll take him, after all!"
Old Simione began to laugh softly, turned round, and pursued his way to the mill bridge, but Zamfira remained in front of me, erect, her hands by her sides. Her head was bent down, but the grey eyes flashed at me from beneath her eyebrows. Her head was bare, her chestnut hair was drawn smoothly back from the temples into a thick plait, tied at the nape of the neck. A white water-lily, beautiful, as though cut out of silver, was fastened among her rich tresses. Beneath a white chemise her bosom rose and fell, a blue skirt fell plainly to her ankles.
Suddenly she raised her head and looked shyly at me as she smiled. Her teeth shone between her thin lips. Then, with her eyes, she gave me the signal, "Come!"
I followed her. She moved swiftly and her well-developed form was clearly outlined beneath her thin garments. From time to time she turned her head, and her teeth flashed. She untied the boat, jumped in and said curtly, "Follow me!"
After I was seated, she braced herself for the effort, thrust in the long pole, and set the boat in motion. For some time we glided through reeds and rushes, and above great beds of weed. When we reached open water she put down the pole, and took to the oars. The boat cleft the deep water which glowed with flames from the fire of the setting sun. The oars splashed softly with a musical sound. The girl's whole body moved with a rhythmic grace that was unspeakably fascinating. The silver lily quivered in the luxuriant chestnut hair.
Silence reigned over the lake. Water-lilies shone in the golden sunset, the reeds rustled softly, the dragon-flies passed like blue flashes through the light.
Suddenly the girl turned her strange grey eyes upon me. "So tonight you will lie in wait for the duck?" she asked.
"Yes, I shall wait."
Her voice had a melodious, silvery ring. I questioned her, "That seems strange to you?"
"No," she said, turning her head away, "but aren't you afraid?"
"Of what should I be afraid?"
"Of the fairy of the lake," she replied with conviction.
"Of the water lady? Who is this fairy of the lake?"
"What? Do you not know? The fairy of the lake."
Her eyes scanned my face intently.
The sun had nearly set, the water of the lake grew dark, a heron passed above us scarcely moving its wings, its cries sent a shudder of sadness through the silence of the forest of reeds. The girl looked at me, and her teeth shone with a smile of almost diabolical beauty. Her clear-cut face seemed to reflect the colour of the green water. I cannot describe what I felt, only the charm of the speaker was astounding. In that framework of reeds and creepers, set as it were between two skies. She was the fairy of the lake.
The boat struck the side of a cave and remained fast.
"Here we are," said the girl.
Slowly I stepped ashore. But the charm made my head reel. I turned abruptly, took her face between my hands, and would have kissed those eyes in whose depths the secret of the lake lay hid. She resisted gracefully with little movements, and trills of laughter, and instead of kissing her eyes I touched her lips which burnt like fire.
I felt her draw herself away, I felt those strange eyes piercing through me, and the boat shot away into the reeds and creepers. The lake remained desolate, and in the silence only the gentle splash of distant oars could be heard. I prepared myself a little bed of reeds in the cave. I spread out my serge cloak, tried the triggers of my gun, and while I waited for the duck I fell into a brown study. How strange! I was perfectly conscious of my position, I knew quite well that the fairy was none other than Zamfira, the miller's niece, the sunburnt, and perhaps, the simple maiden, and in spite of this, the eyes, and the laughter, had something about them that intoxicated me like the strong perfume of some wild flower.
In the gradually deepening shadows of the twilight she remained like some vision, floating on the bosom of the lake, among the blossoms of the water-lilies. I was roused by the rapid whirr of wings. I started up. A flight of duck passed over me. This event drove away my preoccupation. I steadied the gun in my hands and put it at full cock. In the reeds, torn and beaten by the wings of the duck, coot and moor-hens called to each other and a light breeze ruffled the forest of reeds. Small flocks of birds passed through the darkness of the night. I fired a few shots. The gun made a deep sound which echoed far across the water. One or two duck detached themselves from the group, and fell heavily to the surface of the lake, troubling the water. The darkness increased, it was impossible to distinguish the duck, one could only hear the rustle of their flight, like a brief wind. The evening breeze dropped, and a calm spread itself over the lake. Only great black birds flew overhead, noisily crying: "Chaw! Chaw!" From time to time, in the silence of the night, could be heard the deep, lugubrious, indistinct note of the bittern.
Stars glowed overhead, and in the depths of the water the reflected moon would not rise for nearly another hour. I wrapped myself in my cloak, and began to ponder over those grey eyes. In the silence, which grew ever deeper, the noise of the mill and of the weir could be heard afar off. Somewhere a dog barked in its kennel. From some hill, lighting the darkness, one caught the twinkle of a bright flame. The supple body, the eyes, and the laughter, the lily blossom which harmonized so well with the lake and with the green lights in the eyes, tantalized me. Now she was no longer the simple maiden, kissed by the sun and caressed by the wind, every movement, every look, had something particular about it. And also something strange.
I had never seen her when I visited the mill. I had heard of the old man's devilish niece, but I had never set eyes upon her. But now an incident recurred to my mind, to which, at the time, I had paid scant attention. On one occasion I had perceived a pair of restless eyes peeping at me through a chink in the mill bridge. Those eyes were surely hers, they sparkled so, and were so full of light and mirth. There, in the dark night, that ardent kiss seemed to burn me and I waited. I waited for something that I could not explain even to myself.
I dozed, dreaming of those grey eyes. I cannot tell, but perhaps I fell asleep. I awoke in the full light of the moon which was flooding atmosphere and lake with its silver beams. The water glittered, the night was still, the mill was silent. In the distance the weir was murmuring as in a dream.
Here and there, the water rippled into circles the colour of agate, and groups of duck were bathing in the moonlight. I put my hand to my gun. I raised my eyes, I was ready to pull, when I paused. A melodious song, scarcely intelligible, could be heard coming from the lake. It was a simple song, and monotonous, but its remoteness, the echo across the water, the clear light of the moon, lent it a profound charm. I immediately thought of the lady of the lake.
I placed my gun beside me and listened. It was a simple and touching melody. It had ceased for some time, but I still strained my ears, I could only catch the soft murmur of the distant weir. Time passed, and yet I still expected something to happen.
After a while I heard distinctly the soft splash of oars. I looked everywhere, I could not make out from where it came. Then, suddenly, amid the obscurity of the rushes, the gently floating boat came gliding into the sea of light with the girl reclining in the silvery beams. The lily shone in her dark hair.
I cannot tell you what I felt, for the storm of emotion cannot be expressed in words, and besides that, I was young then, and half a century has passed since my youth. I know I stood with wondering eyes and gazed like one possessed. In very truth this was the fairy of the lake!
All at once I saw a movement. The boat turned, and the oars struck the water, making great ripples of light. It was directed towards my cave. She came with wild speed, staring, her great eyes like phosphorescent stars. But when she got near, she once more let the boat glide, then turned abruptly, and laughing passed by the cave. She cast a silvery laugh, which I have never forgotten, no, not to this day although it is so long ago. She passed by like a phantom, laughing, and her eyes shining like two stars in the night of those great eyebrows. To the right of me she rose, and threw something towards me, then, sinking down, she again took the oars, struck the water, and shot out into the open lake.
She disappeared. One could only hear the soft stroke of the oars, then that, too, ceased, and perfect silence fell upon the silvery lake.
By my side I found a bouquet of carnations and sweet basil, the flowers of love.
At daybreak the old man came to take me off. When I turned towards the yard I once again bent my head in the direction of the old black building. Eyes watched me through the chink in the mill bridge.
That very day I went away. Many a time have I wanted to return to the old Zavu mill, but fate has willed it otherwise. At last, when I could have done so, other loves have held me in other places. Years have passed, but the bunch of dried carnations and basil reminds me of it all. And from time to time, my thoughts wander to the fairy of the lake.