King’s Hearthman

Skalbe Main

(Karaļa krāšņkuris)

It was in those times when they had not discovered coal that gives away black smoke, and all the hearts were light and kindly. Those days, god and a smiling heavenly congregation inhabited skies, and castles were ruled by kings. The cities had less smoke than now. The houses were wax-brown or sand-coloured. Years touched them with sun and mists, and they grew darker, quiet as flowers fading. The cool stone fences had quiet wooden gates. Hale people walked through them. Here and there, sturdy trees stood up, and church spires pointed towards heaven. And for many, the earth was but a path upon a hill, slowly ascending into heaven.

That is the time when they started the tale of two children that had gone in search of heaven. It is just one of stories left behind like a little grey stone axe we find in the long-cold ashes of past times. It was difficult to tell a grown-up from a child, those days, all of them had hearts full of crazy longing. Many went and were lost in the vast blue of heaven. Old people tell different tales of those days, and nobody knows how much truth they have in them. Still, their words have something of the faraway mists of the sun. This is no wonder: they knew nothing of the modern teaching about the round planet, and longing and distance had no borders. Today we are as if locked in the shackle of skies, the earth is round, and we are round, and bound to return to the same thoughts every morning. Even if we might have a longing for something in the evening, in the morning we will have come back to our old track of thought. And so it goes, according to the unbreakable rule of returning: when one leaves for the west, one is bond to come back from the east.

But those days there ruled plains and dreams of the plains. The returning was not so tangible, and humans were not like that snake that bites its own tail with anger…

***

Those years are far. They glitter and sing through dark evening mists so soft and sad, sounding like copper boards when the city guard taps his oaken hammer on them announcing the sunset. Then it seems a table has been laid on the western side: it is a low linden-table, plates of red gold, and among high wine-cups, rue, the gentle wedding-flower, and trembles with festive glamour.

Then with a roll of thunder, a tiny cloud goes over the quiet bridge of dusk. The plates clank and blaze. The cups fall over, and the trembling table is immersed in dark heaps of clouds. Still wine-stained are the shadow coats. Something huge and heavy has blocked out the light. But the air is fragrant with the broken rue-flowers. It is a fragrance of those days, long ago…

***

They built huts of red clay those days. Thatches were of rye, and winds and rain made them change colour. The walls as if hid under a partridge wing. Cowshed was under the same roof with the living-chamber. People lived in close friendship with cattle. The door was always open between the shed and room, and in the evening the cows would look into the room, their broad foreheads peaceful, and marks would shine on them like pools of spilled moonlight.

And the people had broad ruddy faces, as if they had watched the evening moon for too long. They did not separate the living things from the inanimate yet. Darkness was full of spirits, every nook and corner full of hidden forms of life, like a covered womb. Mother was everywhere, and they copulated, squeaked and cried on her lap. And the people understood all voices. They understood also those that were by nature mute or hoarse like late autumn wind. They talked to their cattle and celestial bodies, to a clay mug and the knitting needle – a child talked to its arms and legs after waking.

And on the floor, they had hay and straw. And the smell of hay gave birth to many a beautiful tale.

But the castle had gold and silver, and King lived there.

He loved gold-embroidered clothes, flowers, fire and fragrances. Silk ran down his shoulders and arms like soft-flowing water. Glittering golden flowers and lithe dragons folded and unfolded, many-headed, hundred-eyed, as his garments moved.

The state was managed by ministers. King knew nothing of what happened outside the gate, in the city, on the fields or in pastures. He knew only fire and fragrances. And he knew that meadows had flowers and forests had thousand beasts and birds – he had hunted them with his bow.

He was capricious, as all kings are. And in all the country, there was only one man who knew how to please him. It was his Hearthman, an old Lithuanian, his hair was flaxen-fair, and in long straight streams touched his lean cheeks. And always when he’d approach his King, his lips had a quiet subject’s smile on them, and a little spot of light was on his temple where the flaxen hair met it.

When he slowly came, bent through halls and rooms, King’s children – two tender princesses – held on to his green jacket, already weighed down by golden tresses. When the water-lily-white children’s hands held him back, his steps grew slower, and he walked like carrying a precious wine-cup.

By the fireside, in an oak chair, King sat and put his small feet that loved peace and light so much, on the dim silver grate. He had immersed himself in dreams like deep woods. On his chair, a forest had been carved, in there were bests lost amidst trees and branches intertwined with wondrous feathers of the phoenix; living red roots were twisting in a happy wild boar’s tusks. A stream ran over the roots, leaving a green shadow, and King listened to it in his dreams.

After a hunt or a feast, he sat in his chair like in the song of a forest. He listened how foxes barked and hares wailed, and to the sound that bear makes in his sleep behind a juniper-bush. And in the embers of the fireplace, a smile of a certain damsel would twist and reel, like a blushed lover whispering – take me! Take me up! – A dream would sparkle in the smoke and then be gone. The wind was up on the rooftop, the old sewer, letting the sparkles go where they will.

When the evening faded, and the heavy curtains were drawn, and a candle burned at the other end of the hall like a golden tulip, the Hearthman entered the hall.

As usual, he bowed his knee to his King and put into his hand a bundle of reddish pine kindling on a silver plate.

A candle bloomed in his trembling hand, and King took the kindling like flower-stems cut in halves that have dripped with the gentle rose blood.

When the flame met the kindling, the faces of King and his servant stood lighted before each other like two flowers that open at night. And from the way King’s hands blazed, it seemed that the fire was transferred to his fingers and blood.

Then King himself put the fire into the smoke-stained silver grate. For the good hours, the Hearthman prepared reddish alder logs and a handful or two of rose-petals.

King ordered his golden goblets be brought, and the queen came and sat in an ivory chair, rustling in her long garments like a swan that cannot fold her long white wings upon a shore.

And when the alder-wood quietly blazed, the Hearthman was there, and threw the rose petals in. he was the cupbearer on those occasions, and he filled King’s cup. Wine rang as it warped in ruby chains inside the cup.

‘Behold, the sound of chains of our blood!’ King said and the queen lowered her long lashes, hiding her eyes from fire. And quietly King put his hand into hers, and they wed each other anew. And the hearth set their fingers ablaze with uniting rose-fire.

They emptied their goblets and fell silent in deepest intoxication.

The third goblet was meant for the Hearthman. He was the only one who was allowed to drink with his King at times like that. The Hearthman was King’s champion. And King with his own hand passed him the goblet. Then his servant’s tongue, too, fell silent, and he knew nothing better than sigh or laugh with deepest intoxication. Only the children chirped at the feet of the royal couple, dizzy with happiness and fire and honey the Hearthman brought for them in an amber basin.

But when King was angered, which was always after discussion of matters of state, he would shout to his Hearthman, ‘Now give me something sour!’

And the old man brought a heap of rotten wood. And while the tiny fire squeaking broke its way through the smoke, King liked to let himself feel angry and sullen, and treated himself to a quiet swear-word.

But the faithful servant did so that King’s face slowly lightened up to slight sorrow. He stood there and threw small juniper-twigs one by one into the fire; and they swished into long golden chains; he threw in birch-twigs that were picked when the buds are young, when the black grouse sings in spring. He put in also green blackcurrant leaves and mixed them with a tiny grass-blade that people call snake-tongue – so pungent and biting was its smell. He had picked it himself in sunburned glades; with fingers in blood, he had dug it out of the hard soil. It was a tiny herb, and held on to the sand with wild shyness. ‘Little needle, little needle I stitch fragrances together,’ the Hearthman boasted with a smile. He had often darned King’s sullen mood with this needle. Thus the Hearthman brought offerings before his lord day in, day out, as a faithful priest should. He knew his job well, and knew what King’s tastes were.

When King threw down his heavy hunting boots after a long tiring day in the forests, frozen or ill, then his Hearthman would light resinous pine-logs, and King grew well in the healing resin fragrance.

In white winter days, he loved white birch-logs and the light bitterness of birch-wood. When his eyelids grew heavy with wine, he felt like lost in a frost-covered birch-grove.

The noise of feast was accompanied by crackling of spruce-logs, and then King thought of famous battles and hunts where arrows had a job to do.

On the New Year’s Eve they burned blue oak snags, those burned well into the night, slow as the dark and the pain.

***

The entire castle was full of joyful expectations. The queen had become slower and paler. Yes, everyone knew what she hid under her white swan’s garment. They waited for a new king.

But the Hearthman sought a new tree and a new fragrance. Nearly every day he went down to the port and questioned the sailors. He searched all the secret corners of the ships, so that some took him for a spy – they said he was looking for smuggled goods. Sailors were talking of breaking his leg secretly, so he will not pry.

The old man invited sailors to the castle as well. They drank a lot of his wine and spat in all the corners.

But when they were tipsy, the Hearthman asked them of foreign lands: what trees there were, what flowers? The sailors told what they knew, but the old man was never satisfied. There was not a tree he would not know of.

And of the foreign trees they had seen, he knew much more – their sap, and smell, and the way they burned, what smoke they gave off and how the charcoal broke. This he sang like a tale. And the sailors looked sulkily into their wine-cups.

The Hearthman made them angry. Did he think they were children, he the old court-rat! They had also seen things! And they gave a colour to their story, telling of trees like this and trees like that.

But their lies were too crude, and they had no words for fragrances. The old man shook his head, listening. Their boast made flat leaps like a frog, and he could not believe them.

‘No, there is no such tree,’ hed shake his head.

‘What do you mean, no such tree; then you want a tree that does not exist!’ They thundered and hit the table so that some of the wine-cups fell over, leaking their pink soul onto the flaxen tablecloth. ‘Go and look for someone else will tell you of non-existent things!’

But the Hearthman filled their cups anew, and they parted in friendship.

After the overseas voyages, the sailors returned to the port and brought for the Hearthman dry reeds and branches bound with seaweed. And he gave plenty of wine to them, even if the spoil was scanty, and he still had not found what he sought.

***

The childbirth was good, and the land received what it had expected. A new king, pink and tender as a seashell thrown on the strand by the waves, was laid next to his mother. They told in the castle that he had been born with a crown on his head and a diamond sword – as a true King should.

The castle was feasting. Fir-wood crackled in the furnaces, and instruments sang health and glory in soft voices.

But the queen could not get well. Fever and terrible visions tortured her. The white mother’s chamber by the garden, on the other side of the castle, where all was ivory, alder and pure flax, where a golden streak like a horizon, or a mirror like a clear forest well, where all was created to bring peace and rest, was full of horrible frights. Dirty terrible faces loomed in corners, they twisted and laughed horribly. Thick lips they had! They trooped about the bed and wanted to grab her child, they whispered among themselves and goggled at her – their ears made flapping noises and all the room seemed to be full of wind. And when she fell asleep, a handsome youth sat at her feet, and looked at her with eyes of a lamb to be slaughtered; he was slow and heavy like dead water. She could not move, and her knees were full of dread. Waking up she shouted that the young prince had been killed. They showed her the baby, wrapped like a rosebud in the flaxen nappy, but to no avail, when she fell asleep, she had the same dream.

There were learned doctors. They tried out many things. They warmed her and froze her, but nothing helped. The queen was fading like a shadow. They did not give her much time. And the goldsmith of the castle had received a secret commission for the coffin.

***

Impatient and disquieted, the Hearthman was walking through the basement where he kept firewood. He did not know which logs to choose.

They all were good for warming the house, but he was not sure they could scare away nightmares.

He walked through the quiet sandy corridors and angrily kicked at the logs. Finally, he came upon a bale of dry branches bound with pale seaweed in a corner. Silver bits of tree were pressed close together. The Hearthman had found this heap on a ship where it served as a pillow for the cabin boy. He had left a piece of gold instead, and brought it to his basement. The Indian tree had no name even in the tongue of the natives. He called it sweet shrub, hay-herb, but had not guessed its true name yet. If a twig was broken, the wood was revealed, red as a cherry. It had a healing smell.

The Hearthman took the bale and quietly tiptoed into the queen’s chamber.

The queen was in her high white bed and having visions. Her eyes were open, but she did not see the intruder. Pale as grass, she was trembling under the sheets and staring at the ceiling. Her cracked lips moved soundlessly; she had no strength to cry or speak.

On a marble table by her bed, there was a silver tray with ice. The block of ice was melting and turning into quiet drops. Just like the queen’s life.

The Hearthman put fire to the branches. Soft rings of smoke entered the room. They wrapped round the queen’s bed, came down on her eyelids and melted into a healing fragrance. The walls disappeared, and the sheen of mirrors, gold and silver with them. The room became white as a light cloud of snow, lifted from a branch of an apple-tree by the morning wind. The old man’s pale face was lost in it. His white hair was entangled with soft smoke curls. He was shaking them off and tiptoeing blew them towards the queen’s bed, and smiled softly like a white spirit of smoke. He would have blown out his own soul had that saved the queen’s life. The Hearthman listened. The queen sighed through the smoke, and it seemed, she fell asleep. Quietly as he had come, the Hearthman left.

***

The queen started getting better from that day on. The Hearthman was double quiet out of joy. In the mornings, King did not hear his long hard strides and woke up only when the old man had long stood at his bed, watching King in his sleep. (The Hearthman had also the duty to wake King up.) He trod now so lightly that he stepped into King’s morning dreams. King favoured him even more, although the old man had told nothing to anyone, and kept the secret of the firewood like a precious diamond…

***

And again, there was feasting in the castle. Again all halls were full of music. The more the music was played, the sweeter was its sound. And nobody grew tired of listening to it: the knights and the ladies were ready to wade in it like in a blue sea.–

But death had waited for a while only. One night the bells sounded alarm. Enemy had broken into the land. Foreign troops stood like walls around the castle.

King had given himself too much to feasts and dreams. His war-band had forgotten how to throw spears, and enemy killed them in multitudes.

When the castle was a-fire, and nothing could be done, the knights threw themselves on their swords in despair. And the ladies leaped out of the high castle windows, dressed in festive garments. King was slain. The queen died with her ladies. Their long garments were seen circling the ponds for long after.

The Hearthman managed to escape by a secret garden path. On his arms, he held the young prince whom the queen had left with him. The blaze of fire lit the long night of his journey.

In the morning, the refugee came out on a field. Marauders who went through the country burning and robbing met him there. They snatched the child out of his arms, and the old servant bent his head expecting a deathblow. But they had pranks in mind. They tore off his golden tresses and rent his clothes – that day was very windy – and let him go, as a beggar. Why kill? Such a servant of King could still serve as a scarecrow.

***

Now everything had been taken from him. Thoughtless, he wandered on, and winds tore at his ragged clothes. He was so weak, and had been left to the pleasure of the wind.

Once he roamed into a huge forest and struck a cart-trail. The tree branches still held bits of hay. And the Hearthman collected them as was his custom. He hugged the dry flowers and looked into their faded faces like into his own pain. Various flowers there were, burnt clover-heads and faded grass-blades and leaves, and a breath of charred pain came from them. He filled his torn pockets with them, and it seemed he was doing something, looking for something… the trees became higher and darker: he went deeper and deeper into the forest.

There was a hut in that forest and the doors were open.

There the Hearthman found embers and a flat stone, on which a hunter, lost in the woods, had prepared his meal. He sat by the hearth and raked the ashes. Some embers were still glowing. He took the herbs and grasses and scattered them over the embers as he once used to.

A thin streak of smoke rose from the stone and departed through the window. The old man watched it and thought, ‘for whom am I burning this offering, for whom? My King is slain, the bandits took my prince. There is nobody to bring offering to. I have never sat alone by a hearth.’

He saw how the smoke threaded through the red arms of pine-trees, and raised his eyes in search of something.

***

The Hearthman is not in the hut anymore. He has lost himself in the trees and leaves, and gone insane. He breaks away twigs and smells them, and looks for fragrances. He picks up everything that burns and is fragrant. Flowers and leaves, even roots he finds and digs out. Alder buds, birch cones and hazel catkins – he burns it all in his day. But his fire now is started under a spruce by a forest-brook. Here he feels that somebody is walking in the blue haze of morning. Like a breath of wind, it parts the branches, and the Hearthman feels his steps up there, like on a high riverbank where flowers are stirred and the sun folds golden cloth over the waves.

He falls on his knees by the fireside, looks upwards through the branches and speaks in shame and worship. ‘Lord, judge me not because I am so dirty and poor. My clothes were torn by robbers. Lord, judge me not because I have no altar for offerings. I burn for you the best that I find in the forest.’

To whom does the old servant speak? Is he mad or has he found the King?

Skalbe Main

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© Translation Lauma T. Lapa