Hangman’s Daughter

Skalbe Main

( Bendes meitiņa)

There was a hangman, and he had a daughter. He did what all hangmen do. However, sometimes, when he had slept off his terrible drunkenness that he spent his days in, he took his daughter on his lap, and a sound was looking for words in his throat. He was like a hoarse cuckoo that wants to sing, and that was terrible.

The girl grew up.

She had red hair, and everyone could see at a distance that the hangman’s daughter was coming.

She grew up alone. Everyone shunned her, and only breaches in fences were open to her, through them she could see how sunflowers grew in other people’s gardens.

Once the hangman had drunk too much and died. He fell right outside the inn. Blue flames were coming out of his mouth, and nobody tried to lift him up.

At night, he was accompanied to the graveyard by men-at-arms with torches and swords. Only his daughter went behind the coffin, her eyes cast down under the great kerchief of her mother.

Next day she went to see her father’s grave, but she found it empty. A black rill ran by the graveyard. Three old dry alders stood there, stretching their naked gnarled arms in the air. And what was it she saw there? In the middle tree, her father was hanging with his arms stretched out. The wind tore at his red shirt. He held a bottle of booze in one hand, a noose in the other. Dark crowds of ravens were settling in the bare branches and pecked at his naked shins. The girl hid her face in her hands and ran away. The horrible apparition persecuted her everywhere. Only now did she know her father. And her red hair she bore like a flame on her head. She thought that each person she met on her way knew her. She walked for days and nights and came to another country where people lived in peace and happiness, and did not know what stern judges and merciless hangmen were. There she herded cows for good people. She was a strange creature. She drew the kerchief over her eyes whether it was rain or sunshine, she did not call out to other herdspeople, and nobody heard her yodel on a hillside. Wherever she went, somebody was quietly prying behind her and whispering in her ear – you are a hangman’s daughter!-

And when she heard the song of a bird or saw a flower just opened, and was ready to forget herself for a moment, her torturer was right by her shoulder. As a scythe cuts down a little flower, so did the harsh whisper cut out any joy for her.

She had no friends or relatives, only brother sleep. He had his yard full of smiling children and misty willows full of silvery cradles. Here she was just like the others, and the children played with her, took her by hand and seated in a cradle… but it had a frail pole, it broke, and she fell and woke up: sun was bright in the window and the entire world full of cruel light. She looked at herself and knew that she was still a hangman’s daughter.

One night she could not sleep and was sitting by the window. And between the tree-branches, the face of the moon appeared to her. The ash-leaves trembled, and the moonlight was shifting in rapid streams under the trees.

The hangman’s daughter threw her kerchief over the shoulders and walked a path of quivering moonbeams. She wanted to go to the mother moon’s castle. Her face was so clear, watching far over hills and woods. She was the one who knew all and saw all. She will tell what to do. She will know a word that will release the girl from torture, set her free of her self.

So the girl walked on and on until she reached a large forest. And she hears behind her, the sound of horse-hooves. The fir-roots tremble and all the forest is alarmed. Then silence. Cold tremor runs over the girl, and again she hears it – the sound of horse-hooves on the ground… like a wind, a black rider is galloping straight on her. His broad cloak is hissing over the fir-needles like a blind bird that has lost its way in the thicket. The hooves come closer and closer, and the girl hides herself beneath a fir in fear. But the rider halts his horse, takes her up, half-alive, puts her in front of him in the saddle and lets his wild steed run. He breathes sharp and fast on the back of the girl’s head, and his breath scatters cold fear under the girl’s hair. She thinks that her head is large and empty like a drum. And the rider’s voice thunders:

‘Child, where you going?’

‘To the castle of mother moon.’

‘Child, your road is long; but I can give you a ride.’

‘Who are you, dark one, and how did you notice me? I was hiding beneath a fir.’

‘I am despair. I know my children. My horse is faster than wind, but I ride only until dawn.’

And so they rode – and the forest was trembling to its roots with the sound of the horse-hooves.

When the dawn came, the rider took the girl off the horse, spurred him – and the steed rose into he air and vanished over the treetops with the morning mist. Only a corner of the rider’s dark cloak covered the sun for a moment.

The girl went into a blooming glade. And every grass-blade was good for her as a green mother. She was tired and wanted to sleep, and she had neither a pillow nor a blanket. But the flowers offered her their fringy shawls and moss, its brown pillows. – Look, here is a bed under every grass-blade, the girl wondered. She walked through the meadow. The flowers had been more fragrant for nobody else, but for the hangman’s daughter in that morning. To no one have the grass-blades bowed so low and so lovingly, not even to the king himself. Those who are rich and righteous walk in themselves through the world and look down on all things from their lofty places. But the hangman’s daughter bent down to every flower, and everything was smiling back to her, for she was but a poor child, and every leaf on the roadside was better than her. And when she had nothing else left, this joy of humility still was with her.

In the daytime she rested, her head on a sod by the roadside, and the grass was singing green songs to her. At night, the black rider took her up on his steed, and they thundered through the woods. — —

One night, the wood became scarcer and lighter. The rider halted his horse, took the girl down and said: ‘now your road is bright before you. The castle of mother moon is not far,’ and he sped away through the forest.

The fir-trees became sparser and sparser. Green maples replaced them, over their leaves the moonbeams were crawling like blue spiders, hanging down under soft shadows by long silver threads. Then came pale ash-trees. A light and distant breath of wind was on them, as if the heaven itself were quietly breathing on them. Behind the ashes, there was a high tower with narrow silvery windows. A blue Turk stood by old stone steps; he had a golden sickle instead of a sword. He declined his sickle and let the girl pass. She had to climb very high, and the stair got narrower and narrower. It seemed that the tower was swaying. Like a spider on his thread, she climbed upwards, until she came to the room where mother moon lived. All was there as in the days of old: by a little window with round panes, there stood a golden spinning wheel. A pale flax tow was next to it. Mother moon was sitting and spinning. Her face was kind and her curls were white. She nodded and accepted the greeting, and her fingers were busy with the yarn.

When the girl had told why she had come, the granny gave her a tiny little silver key.

‘Here, take this key. It unlocks all doors, and makes invisible its owner. Go and take a young soul from a hangman’s hand, and you will find peace. At the other end of the world, there is castle of king of grey-island. There a young hero is waiting for his death in the tower. Go and set him free!’

The girl thanked mother moon and set out. She walked through the ash-trees and the maples and came into the dark forest again. Then she did not know where to go, and she started to cry. But, listen, isn’t it the sound of horse-hooves, behind the fir-trees? — The dark rider appeared again. A hem of his robes touched the girl’s face…

‘Why are you crying?’ the dark one asked.

‘I do not know the road to the castle of the king of grey-island.’

‘Come, I will give you a lift.’

And they rode through the forest as never before. The girl held on to the horse’s mane. The mad breath of the rider burned the back of her head, and all the time she felt she’d fall off the horse and be ridden over by the wild beast. They flew over the tree-roots like so many steps of a stair into the abyss… and the sound of the horse-hooves cut through the dark.

Towards the dawn, the rider halted his horse by a frost-covered gate. On the top of the tower, a pale light was gleaming, it seemed it had frozen.

‘You dark, good one,’ the girl said to the rider, ‘will you wait in the forest, until a young man calls for you. Take him on your horse and bring him over the mountains where the king of grey-island has no power over him.’

Then the girl opened gate after gate quietly, invisibly, until she came to the uppermost room of the tower, where a pale light was glowing in a frost-bound window, and the young hero was waiting for his death.

-‘Take this key and become invisible. You can open all doors with it. Take it and flee,’ she said to the young man. ‘I will stay here in your stead.’

But the young man had already refused from life and held on to death. She had hard time persuading him.

‘When the guards will not find me, they will take you to the gallows.’

‘Let them do it. I have something to say to them. I feel I have lived in a dark cave. Now I want to see the light of day and speak.’

‘Only heroes can have this kind of death.’

‘Then let me have life. For one single moment, let me have life. One moment before death, let me see its waves over the heads of the people like a green sea. Let me see it dawning like a green morning. Let them take me. I have to stand up and say something. Nobody knows how long and how hard the way of this word to my lips has been. My father was a hangman, and when I was a little child, having slept off his drunkenness, he took me on his lap. Then a sound was looking for words in his hoarse throat. What he could not pronounce then, I know now. Tomorrow I want to pronounce it with joyful cry. Let them take me to the gallows; I want to stand up and say this one word. And this word is — love.’

Then the hero refused the sacrifice the girl offered no more, he took the key from her hand and left.

Skalbe Main


© Translation Lauma T. Lapa