He Sought a Better Life

Skalbe Main

(Laimes meklētājs)

‘This life is no good,’ said the farmer’s son, beating out the mud from his shoes in the evening. What shall he do? He will go in the world, to look for a better life.

So he walks, and walks, and meets a sprite, herding sheep. Herself sitting on the sunny hillside, under a hazel, and the lambs roaming all over the meadow. Behind the hills, the sound of the scythes. There the crops are cut, and the sheaves tied. And huge rye-carts, dragged by slow-tempered horses slowly move along all the roads. Ears are falling from them like long drops of gold. Boys with sun-browned cheeks and arms bring gifts of flowers and fruit to the feet of the sprite .

‘Where are you going, young man,’ says the sprite.

‘Looking for a better life,’ the young man replies.

‘Come and herd my sheep,’ the sprite says.

‘Herding sheep? What good is that?’

‘Maybe you want to take a scythe and go to the corn-fields, tie sheaves or help my boys to take off the apples in the orchard?’

‘I could do that at home! I have had enough of that from my own father! I said I was looking for a better life,’ the young man got rough.

‘Just stay with me, then, for a while. See how the warmth of the autumn sun still stays on the hazel leaves.’ She tried to draw the man to her breast that smelled of fruit and late autumn flowers. ‘Sit here, I will share the apples and nuts with you.’ She took the most wonderful apple from her lap, pressed it in two with her fingers, and the juice was running down her pink palm. ‘Drink this,’ she said, putting this cup to the man’s lips, ‘and eat.’

He took a slice of the apple, bit into it and winced. ‘It’s sour,’ he said.

‘And this was my best apple,’ the sprite got offended and was ready to cry.

‘Please, please, stay with me a little longer! Listen how light is the ringing of the scythes on all the hills! See how the gold of gossamer scintillates over the fields!’ she begged.

‘There is no good here,’ the young man said and shook himself loose.

So he walks, and walks and comes to a smithy by a forest. A black chimney is sitting on the roof, like a bear; an anvil is ringing inside. A sprite is sitting in the threshold, she asks him in.

‘Where are you going, young man?’

‘Looking for a better life.’

‘Then stay with my father! It is so good to be in the smithy. The bellows are hissing, and the fire roaring, and the anvil rings with joy. For lunch he will roast the partridge the hunter brought for the arrowheads my father made for him.’ the young man is looking at the place: he goes inside, to see if the life is better there.

A great smith all in sparkles and smoke looked at him and his eyes reflected the fire.

‘Yes, I need a hand,’ he said, gladly looking at the young man’s broad shoulders. ‘Take this hammer then. The iron is sparkling hot.’ the young man has nothing to do but take the hammer and sweat for an hour or so. The sprite works the bellows and sings, and the smith keeps the rhythm with his hammer. The fire is roaring and the sparkles are flying, and all things go like in a merry hell. The axe is ready. The smith throws down his hammer and says- ‘it is time for lunch.’ the young man sighs and wipes his sweat, but the smith puts a partridge on a stick, and roasts it in the fire. Then he breaks black bread and divides the roast bird: the wings for the sprite, the middle for himself, and the breast for the young man. Then he takes from his portion the heart of the fowl, roasted brown with salt, and puts it on the guest’s bread. ‘This is the best,’ he says smiling a good-hearted smile. They eat. ‘how does it taste?’ the smith asks. ‘Bitter,’ the young man answers and drinks water from the mug. But the smith turns away, fills his pipe, then takes an ember in his hard fingers, makes it dance in his black palm and presses it in hid pipe with the thumbnail. The ember squeaks and is dead. Then he puffs a smoke-ring and looks up at the ceiling.

‘Sorry, smith, your hammer is too heavy for me. Have to catch my breath,’ the young man says and gulps down some more water. ‘I will not stay with you.’ But the sprite runs after him, over the threshold, and takes his hand.

‘Please, stay with me a little longer! If the hammer is too heavy then just make the sound on the anvil. I will do the real hammering, I am strong. Father will not press you too hard. He also has been young and soft like you. Where did he get his strong shoulders! He says, they grow with work.’

But the young man’s heart burns with the desire to look for a better life. ‘To work with the hammer on the anvil – is that any good?’ He will go on, into the world.

So he walks and walks, and comes to a high sea. Ragged waves are coming up, and on the coast, a sprite is dragging nets.

‘Where are you going, young man?’

‘Looking for a better life.’

‘Help me with the net!’ The sprite asks, and looks at him over her shoulder. Calling with her eyes, blue as the sea. The wind tosses her hair and the sea gulls are throwing cries full of passion in the air.

The young man does take hold of the net. But finally, the water is wet, the wind is cold and the hemp rope cuts his hands.

‘No-no, I will go on,’ he says. ‘There is no good here.’

‘Please, please, stay with me! The sprite begs. ‘Don’t you see how heavy the net is? It goes through mud, but it brings out bright fish. Sometimes it catches pearls and pieces of amber. Stay with me! Maybe we fish out an ancient kings’ crown. I will put it on your head. Then you will be my king and reign over me and my cabin.’

But the young man is blinded by his search. He walks on, and on. The evening is coming over the fir-trees. He comes to a dark cave. A weak fire glows there. An old woman sits by the hearth. A bony dog with rough yellow fur has stretched out at her feet. Night is all around him, and the road is lost in the dark. The young man greets the woman in an unsteady voice and goes into the cave. The dog growls and looks at him with red eyes, so that all the young man’s wits go numb.

‘What are you looking for, young man?” the woman asks.

‘Looking for a better life.’

‘You must have passed it on your way, then. There is no good life here, with me. My fire warms not; my cave is dark and empty. And you do not have anywhere to go from here. For seven years, you will sit here and feed my dog. You will pick leaves from thistles and berries from thorns. I will not let you go until you come to love this hearth that warms not, these lustreless eyes, this dog (you will learn to pat him; otherwise he will tear you up). Then I will make a staff of the thorn bush for you, and show you the way back to my sisters you passed by.’

Skalbe Main

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© Translation Lauma T. Lapa