How I Sought the Maiden of North

Skalbe Main

(Kā es braucu Ziemeļmeitas lūkoties)

There was a sailor; he once told me this tale.

*

I had a new heart; new, unhurt and strong as a mug, recently taken out of the oven – a mug that has not been chipped yet… you touch it and it tinkles.

She was hot. Invisible flames made her red-hot, and she made hot blood run through my veins.

Just like the streams in springtime take whole trees with them, leaving them wherever they flow, my hot blood urged me to go somewhere far.

And I left the lowly grey father’s hut by the quiet woods and walked over the fields that my brothers had tilled – out, into the world. I never looked where I put my foot, my strides were wide and uncouth, and my feet were caught on lumps of earth and sod. I was like a rolling stone in a mountain stream.

Above me, the blue sea of the sky was flowing. Behind my back, there was left the dark coast of the green woods. One by one, light cloud-skiffs were departing; they had sails with golden ornaments. They flew over my head, swinging in the morning breeze.

There were daughters of the sun [1] sitting in the skiffs, they had adorned themselves with radiant pearls, and giants in luminous brass armour, flaming swords in hand.

The daughters of the sun sang longing; the giants told tales of glorious deeds, and their tales were like a birch-grove that emerges from the flood of fog in the red lights of the morning.

Above my head now was a large boat with fiery stripes upon its bow. In it there stood a tall giant, grey-cloaked and with a wreath of dark hair about his head. His eyes like glowing gimlets bore in the north.

A little before the giant, there was a skiff. He steered closer to it. The sun-daughter’s skiff stuck to the giant’s boat like a water lily, and I heard the giant tell her of the Maiden of North, her that lives beyond the sea in a diamond castle and makes marvellous wreaths of radiance. The most passionate youths of all the earth are said to go seeking her; and the bravest and most valiant of them receives the radiant wreath and is seated next to her on a bed adorned with diamonds.

The boats went on, into the haze in the distance.

I ran after them, stumbling over the sod.

The giant’s tale had filled my heart with longing – it was brimming like an oaken barrel with young, fermenting wine.

When I left my father’s house, I knew not where I was going. Now I did, I was going to the sea and seeking the Maiden of North.

*

Across brown soil, across meadows, across marshland and ditches, by the narrow green borders between fields I went on and onward.

The sun set, radiant beyond the trees. The dusk went out in all directions like quiet grey waters.

People abandoned their tools and timorously disappeared in their huts hidden by the trees. Doors clanged closing, white flames shivered in the windows.

Travellers turned from the white road into long dark alleys of maple and willow. They knocked on the locked doors and humbly waited to be let in.

I knocked on no door. I was not scared of the dark. My heart had flown over like a well into a stream of red light that lit my way…

I walked by day and night. One morning I went up a hill with sparse pine trees and could see nothing beyond it, but sky.

Was this the end of the world? No, this was but its beginning: over there the sea met the sky… and on the coast, there stood a boat, and a little off shore there was a ship with a white sail stretched like a wing.

With shouts of joy, I ran down, jumped into the boat and was there on board the ship. As I stood at the wheel, a cool grey shadow came over me, I heard the whistle of wide wings at my back, the sail was full and the ship struck out north.

I sailed by day, by night. The farther I went into the sea, the higher the waves, the faster my ship went.

The sea became more and more lonely. Seldom could I see even a flock of sea gulls, passing the ship, touching her sail with their sharp wings. Seldom did I see a white sail flash, fade and melt in the distance…

Then even this was lost, and there was only the vast eternal solitude before me…

*

Waves howled round me like hungry wolves, and my ship beat severely against their wide ruffled, white backs. Some would back up angrily, and roaring open their foaming mouth, wanting to catch my ship in their jaws and crush it. But my “young strength” broke their green jaws with one blow and proudly came down the limp backs…

Then at the horizon, I saw white clouds moving in a strange fashion. Those were not clouds, but icebergs.

There the Maiden of North had her realm. Those were her white giants that had taken this sea for their playground. I saw them threaten each other and rise against the next one, turning hundreds of glistening ice spears against their adversary. I saw them meet each other in a crushing mountain of ice, and then with a terrible noise, dissolve and crumble into so many little pieces of ice in the sea. And wide blocks of ice started passing me, rubbing their green stomachs against the sides of my ship.

I was standing at the portal to the land of north. on both sides, holding their spears up high, there stood ice giants, in between them there was a wide ribbon of water, there waves played with crumbs of icy brain.

And across this way, a sea colossus lay, stretched like a dark island. His wide nostrils were in the water, his swollen eyes glowed through half-open lids like an oven through a door half-open, and his nose hissed fountains of sparks wrapped in smoke, up in the air.

Rushing through blocks of ice, my ship advanced towards the monster.

One of the white giants stirred and came out to meet me. The ship, bravely showing her oaken breast, attacked it, and hit its side with her sharp forehead. A moment… and the giant reeled – with a terrible crackle, his bones crashed, but his heavy head fell on the deck and crumbled to pieces staining all the ship with porridge of crushed brains.

The ship whined and sagged to one side, and started to slide back.

Night was coming, darkness was approaching, and the stars shone in the sky.

The ship slowly floated sideways, and I thought, ‘Why do I have to go into the throat of that monster? I can go round; I can reach the castle from the other side…’

And watching the play of the mad waves, I turned my ship in the direction it was drifting already…

*

The sea gradually calmed down. The ship was going through slow, low waves.

A small mist was over them, and there were white, serene birds wrapped in it, leading the ship’s way. They made home-like sounds, they showed their broad backs, and then disappeared among the wisps of the mist, as if they wanted to go to sleep somewhere warm.

The further I went, the thicker the mist, the higher it climbed. It wrapped itself round my arms, breast and cheeks, warm and transparent as a film over a windowpane. My wind-bitten, hurting cheeks and injured hands were happy to feel its touch. The mist embedded my limbs in a warm bath: the tense strings of my body became soft and stretched in the moisture, my limbs got heavy as lead, and the thoughts were so confused in my head. I leaned against the wheel, and half-asleep, half-awake, I saw the blue distant horizon sink into the mist. Something like white flood grew over my head, and with a lazy movement covered up all the sky. That flood took all the stars; mornings and evenings stuck together and made one endless mess; now I did not know whether my ship floated north or south, whether she moved or stood still. All the hard tangible things had as if disappeared from under my feet; I had lost the sense of being on board a ship; I felt as if sinking into something like warm milk…

I cannot tell how long this journey had been, when I came to my senses. Neither could I guess whether it was day, or morning or evening – the mist had veiled the bright face of the sun. The wonderful eyes of the sky were firmly closed.

I could see a dark strip through the haze. It looked like a forest after a storm. A tired breeze ruffled the sagged sails. The ship dragged herself like a dying animal. The closer I came to the dark patch, the more fear gripped my heart; now I could see a floating graveyard, full of broken crosses; amidst those, grey rags were fluttering, maybe from the wreaths.

Coming even closer, the black patches got larger, and I saw that those were dead ships. Some had already disintegrated; some still had half-broken masts, leaning to one side heavily. Half-rotten sails hung on some less disintegrated pole, like ashes to a charred log.

All the sea was full with rotting corpses of ships. What a strand!

The dying breeze drew its last breath, my ship slowly stopped. I saw that I would never make it round this graveyard.

The ship hit the rocks on the bottom with a crash. A wide wreath of waves went out into the sea. Then even those subsided, like a body, after the last breath.

Desperate, I looked at the thicket of broken masts, and noticed a strip of land at some distance. The ship was dead, but I could save myself. With trembling hands, I untied the lifeboat form the deck and pushed it over the side of the ship. The boat fell into the water and splashed warm decaying water over me, and then stood still. I tied the rope to the railing and went down. As I went down, I had the sad feeling of a person, whose hands have been held to their sides, and someone had spat in their face with a laugh.

I got into my boat and pushed on, not looking back, because there was someone stretched on the ship’s deck, and laughing; the one who had held back my hands and spat in my face, now laughed at me from my ship…

*

The strip of land behind the fog grew thicker and my vision cleared. And I saw there little houses neatly lined up, like tobacco boxes in a trader’s yard. Al of them was the same in size and height. Each one had a door in the middle and a little red chimney in the very centre of the roof.

Looking at them from a distance, it was impossible to tell that these were houses, as they merged into one bulk and it seemed that there was a dark grey wall built on the low coast. There was neither turret, nor a roof different in fashion that would break out above this dull rampart.

Coming closer to the shore, I noticed something weird. At the first moment I did not know what the strange thing was. I realised it only when my boat struck the sand and I left it, wading barefoot through the puddle that was the end of the mighty sea. The thing was that up to this moment, I had been trying to reach the horizon, and it had ever stayed at the same distance from me. The more I tried to reach it, the more it had evaded my efforts, and in that was its beauty. Now I saw that with every step, I can get closer to the horizon, and as I set my foot upon the sand, I saw the skyline touch the earth behind the houses as a greyish-white wall; and the chimneys drew black currents in it.

The rectangular, neat houses were alien to me, I did not recognise the low, sooty skies; my feet refused to carry me on, and I fell down upon a grey rock in the sand.

I sat there and thought of something. I do not know what it was. A shriek, wild with horror of death and despair cut into my tortured and constrained heart. And I beheld a table by the nearest house. And there was an animal on the table, its legs stretched out. There was a human all the way across it, lifting his head, listening to its shrieks. He had lost his clogs because of the excitement, but he seemed not to notice it: he just raised his head and listened to the pain of the creature. There was another, in a white apron and his shirtsleeves turned up. He was holding something in the throat of the creature. At his feet, there was a boy in a smock holding a bowl; and a black bow of blood descended into that bowl.

The shrieks died away, thinning out like a streamlet of melting snow, and powerless tears sounded in it. The victim lay still for a while, only the shriek thinned and thinned and a black bow of blood poured into the bowl from its neck.

Then the victim’s legs gave a violent convulsion, and it stretched upon the table. The bow was broken and a dark splash of blood fell on the boy’s arm. The shriek died down and faded away with a tremor.

Then the man came down from the pig and looked for his clogs. The boy went into the house, raising his arm and looking at it with joy. The men took to their pipes and started to cut the porker open. And a warm animal joy shone on their fat cheeks. A wee bit away from them, a couple of dogs gnawed at some bones, and a crow tried to get something stretchy from the midden.

I closed my eyes.

Suddenly I heard voices about me; I raised my head and saw pink, fat people in soft little coats gathering around me. They started to question me with sympathy, and I told them of my adventures as if in a dream, not knowing what words I had spoken. They listened to my story like they knew it already, as if they were listening to me only because my tale confirmed their thoughts; as if it could not possibly have been otherwise; they rejoiced at the end of my voyage. They sought an excuse to their existence in my misfortune, they found it and were glad. Yes, they had journeyed like that, too, and they had come to this Land of Peace and Satisfaction where complete happiness and peace reign forever. ‘Youthful idealism! Hot blood! Mad dreams!’ they spoke through each other, as I sat on the rock, and my heart was sad.

‘Kindheart, Kindheart!’ A whisper went out behind me, someone started to pat my shoulder benevolently, and I saw an elderly round little face, a little paunch and a round little hand on my shoulder.

‘Do not worry,’ the little round man said. ‘The life will be good here. See, how nice and fat everyone is.’ He made a jovial wink and pointed at the people around me. ‘I have helped them all. I love young people, I like them getting on in life. Do not worry! If you lack the means to get started, I will give you a ham and you can take as much of the sauerkraut from my vat as you want. My daughter Beetlee will cook them for you.’

‘You have come right to our festival. This is the day of the mourning for the pig. Come and be our guest!’

They lifted me from the stone and pushed me gently towards the houses.

There were long tables set in front of the houses. Clouds of vapour came through the open doors. Pink lasses with budding breasts walked in and out of the kitchen, setting huge steaming bowls of sauerkraut amidst various trays and saucers on the tables.

‘The feast is ready,’ Kindheart said rubbing his hands with satisfaction, ‘Let us be seated!’

Everyone took his or her seat. I sat down, too.

How low, how impossibly low was their sky! See, there was calfskin and an inflated pig’s bladder hung out to dry at one spot; above every eater there was a spoon stuck in the sky, and a balance hung right above my head.

The people got up one by one, took their spoons from the sky and began eating. So did I, stretched up my arm and caught a spoon and dipped it into the sauerkraut, but it seemed disgusting to me, and I quietly put down my spoon behind the bowl.

But Kindheart had noticed that. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘You are not used to our kind of food. Beetlee, bring some honey for our guest, please!’

A round lass got up from the table. She had dark eyes and black hair, and she set a weighty pot of honey and a milk mug before me.

‘Drink some milk, then one can eat more,’ she admonished me with love. There were breadcrumbs in the corners of her lips, and a drop of honey gleamed on her chin. ‘I always drink some milk, then I don’t get the heartburn,’ she finished and softly touched the place under her heart.

*

When the grunting and hissing of the eaters began to die down, and a few raised their heads from the food, stretched their limbs in the chairs and looked at the fat pork chunks, trying to decide whether they wanted to eat more or no, a man rose at the far end of the table and put his belly on the table.

Then he stretched forth his beard and knocked on his bowl with a bare pig-bone. Everyone paid attention.

Kindheart bent to my ear and whispered with awe, ‘Prophet Ramround!’

‘Most honourable men and women of my nation,’ Ramround spoke. ‘Now the Land of Peace and Satisfaction has come to that dearest of moments when we can celebrate our great mourning for the pig. The great pig has been slain and her fat flesh smiles at us from every bowl on this table. All the lips glisten with fat; all the cheeks are radiant with complete joy and happiness. And let us now recall what we have to thank for this happiness.

‘Already the ancient Greeks had noticed that the warm mist that covers our land has a positive influence on fattening the pigs; these days every child will tell you that this mist is the well of our good fortune. Now, what keeps steady this mist of ours? It is our low sky that stops the movement of the air and does not let the mist be scattered. And this not the only thing we have to thank our sky for, we have to give it thanks for the peace we all live in. We do not have to look anywhere in the distance; our sky is right before our eyes, we could say, even, at the end of our nose, at a hand’s reach wherever we want (here the speaker touched the sky with his hand).

‘This sky is so practical and applicable that one could never desire anything better. All things can be easily stored at it and taken from there. Whether you need to dry calfskin or put away your spoon, you just have to stretch your arm. When you need something, you just take it. This protects our souls from futile worry and our bodies from futile movements. Behold, through this we are well fed and happy. Therefore, let us love and respect our sky! With this, I would like to ask all the people present to rise from their seats and sing “joyful at my own home,” with one voice.

Everyone rose and sang:

‘Joyful at my home

I lead a life of peace …’

As they sang, each tried to out-sing their neighbour, maybe because they wanted to exceed them in showing patriotic feelings.

But I stood there and watched the trees that grew by the houses. All the trees had no tops. Their branches went out horizontally like polyp arms; they were soft and oily like burdock stubble, their leaves were wide and fluffy, and white stuff moved in the cracks of their bark.

‘Why are your trees so short, why are they without tops?’ I did not want to say those words.

‘Is there anywhere they have to reach?’ Was a careless answer.

Oh, yes, this place had no sun.

No bird could be heard to swish a wing behind those leaves. Wind had not been seen for so long in this place that even the oldest people could not remember it. And the leaves lazily sagged from the trees like drooping ears.

The people got up from the tables and lounged now on blankets that were spread in front of the rooms.

Two were talking.

One said, ‘How wonderful was our prophet’s speech today! Exactly the same as last year and two years ago.’

‘Yes, and how easy to understand,’ the other said. ‘I know every word of his speech.’

‘The peace!’ the first yawned. ‘My eyes are closing by themselves.’

‘Yes,’ the other had apparently dozed off and spoke sleepily.

Their talks were that short at times – one said something, the others agreed, and at the end, everybody fell asleep.

Along the entire long line of horizon, there was not a bird’s song to be heard.

All the birds prowled amidst the tables, pecking at crumbs of food. They were all blubbery, and I thought they had forgotten how to fly altogether. I did not notice even one stretching its wings for a flight. A few of them slept with their heads under the wing.

There was no sun in this place.

A large fleshy bird jumped on Kindheart’s knees and began to pick at the crumbs from his lap.

‘Nightingale,’ he said, winking at me. ‘Just touch her feathers! How soft! Queen!’ he stood up, patting the peaceful back of the bird.

‘And the meat…’ Kindheart smacked his lips approvingly and wiped them with his hand. ‘We shall cut its throat for Martinmas, and you will see what sauerkraut it will make!’

‘Don’t you have any bird that sings?’ I asked.

‘No, we don’t, and we give thanks to god for that! Those we do not have. We have peace here and none of them ever… no, no singing, god forbid. There was one once, came here from somewhere outside, began singing so we could not sleep at all! Finally, we got it hanged. A nasty thing like that will kill the sweetest nap at noon. Since then, none ever makes a sound; you can go and sleep wherever you want to,’ he said.

*

I started to live in the Land of Peace and Satisfaction or the Land of Fat Pigs, as it was sometimes called.

I had a soft little coat like everyone else, a warm little bed and a white little room just like everyone else.

The lovely Beetlee cooked lovely sauerkraut for me and Kindheart patted my shoulder kind-heartedly.

I had all things like everyone else. It was just that the people wondered why I was not growing fat.

Kindheart spoke, ‘Why are you so thin? You had to have some fat grown by this time, anyway. All people get rounder here very fast, only you alone stay bony and angular. Have a look how the others have plumped up!’

But I stayed the same – angular and bony.

Every single one of them padded out a little fortune of their own, like a warren in a corner; they reposed there and fattened up; but I was strangled by unbearable sadness. While the sun and the stars had disappeared from my sight, drowned in the mist, I did not want to either live or die.

Thrice a day I went out, took my spoon and mug from the sky, ate, and drank, then I put them back at the sky. At the sky! Then I crawled into my little room and slept. There was nothing I wanted to see or hear. My soul shirked this life, she shrouded herself with eyelids and whimpered as if in pain; but her voice was so low that nobody heard it. They thought I was a happy and peaceful man, because nobody knew that I lived with my eyes shut.

Beyond that mist, there were the mornings when the Morning Star [2] stood outside my window and rosy clouds were running by her. Yes, then I wanted to get up and live! Now I did not want to open my eyes in the morning; I knew that there will be nothing but the pale wall of mist outside my window, the mist they called day in these parts.

Towards the night, the wall became grey, and they called it night. Beyond the mist, I had lost that royal land which wrapped itself in a mantle of stars at night.

At times, I had mad thoughts: this is no mist at all; this is a web of a spider. I see moving threads clearly; a monstrous spider has wrapped this land in a cobweb. He sucks up everyone’s blood, leaving only fat. Those that live in this cobweb for a longer period become insensitive chunks of fat. And it is not peace they glorify here; those are poisonous vapours the spider uses to suck up their brain.

He has fettered me in this room, he has sown me to this little coat, he draws close to me in my sleep and laps at may blood. At night, I sometimes heard something like water trickling in the neighbouring room; that was my blood dripping into the pincers of the spider. When I move and want to wake up from my slumber, the spider runs away and hides in his web.

There I lay, powerless and fettered, and ashamed of myself. I wanted to forget myself; I looked away from my self and saw a newly tilled hillside. The sun was traversing the sky and a young boy without a cap, barefoot, was trying to follow her across the sod and uneven soil. He was not looking where he put his feet. A strong smell of the earth came to my memory, the earth that had all the strength and life.

And in my despair, I spoke words into the darkness, addressing no one I knew. ‘Bury me in the ground and plant grass on top of me! I want to be reborn under her [3] sod.’

*

Beetlee came to me often. Each time she brought with her a little pot of honey and a mug of milk and put them on my table.

‘Wake up, I brought you honey. And milk. Have a drink, one can eat more then.’ so she said, and her simple face shone with good-heartiness and affection, and a drop of honey shone on her chin.

I looked at her with pity.

She was so good and kind, and still, she was so far away from me, so distant from all that I carried in my heart.

‘Why do they call you Beetlee,’ I asked, sad and angry. ‘After all, you are a human. How can anyone call a human Beetlee?’

‘Don’t you like my name?’ she was wide-eyed with surprise. ‘My daddy likes the name a lot. He says I am smooth and round like a little beetle (and here she turned round on her heel). He says there will be a time when all the earth is going to be smooth and people will roll on it like little balls. He is always unhappy with you, and he says nothing will come out of you if you do not change your ways (she giggled). He says you are angular like a board… and when I do things about the house – I really like doing things about the house– then daddy says that I run about like a little beetle. And so they have called me Beetlee.’

‘Then,’ she said slower, ‘they all say that only the round people are beautiful, and that there will be times when one will be able to walk while sleeping – there will be no need to get up or make a step – one will be able to roll everywhere. But I like you of all people… How does this kerchief sit on me?’ she suddenly broke her talking and stood there in the middle of my room, throwing back her black hair and drawing the corners of her white silken kerchief about her chin.

‘I think it’s fine.’

‘Come, let us dance! She stretched her hands out to me, and began to waltz, not waiting for me: lullah, rullah, rullallah.’

‘Lullah… Why, are you coming or what?’ she stopped and got irritated.

‘I don’t know how.’

‘Come on! There’s nothing you don’t know. I will teach you. It is easy, just try it. Lullah, rullah, rullallah…’ she began waltzing again. ‘See, there’s nothing to know, really!’

‘Ok, let us play then. Catch me! ‘And she prepared herself for a chase, and stood there, looking over her shoulder at me, ready to run, run wild and laugh.

‘I have forgotten what play and laughter are like. An unbearable sadness has taken hold of me. If only you knew…’ I wanted to tell all that to her; but my sadness and despair were so alien to her that she could not believe it and cut in on my tale. ‘Sadness, what nonsense is this? You are but self-centred and proud. Look, he is a human, and I have an ugly name. Can a human dance with someone has an ugly name?’

She was hurt and took up the tray, and went away.

Once she came to me in a red silk blouse. It was cut very low, and in the shallow between her breasts there was a fiery rose, it was nesting there as if nagging at me with one eye, saying – have a look at me, how cosy it is here. And you will never get there.

And Beetlee’s flushed face had a mark of something secret and tempting, like a sweet mystery that she wanted to reveal to me.

She took my hand and breathed with passion, ‘Come, come, I will show you something…’

Her fiery beauty drew me, and I left my hand in her hot palm and went along with her.

She led me to a house, then, through two pleasantly set rooms and stopped by a door.

There she let go of my hand, drew a deep breath and quietly opened the door.

‘Paradise,’ she whispered and nodded for me to look in the open room.

But I looked and did not understand a thing.

A small room, with a single window tightly blanketed, wrapped in a pink mist. In the middle of the room, two comfortable beds with high-carved bedposts. In those, a man and a woman, embracing one another, wrapped in white silk frills, one head close to the other, the one large and dark-haired, the other, flaxen-haired and pink like the apple-blossom. A pink lamp was swinging from the ceiling, and little pink wavelets of light prowled the frills like thick pinkish glue.

‘But that’s a bedroom!’ I said.

‘Bedroom?’ she repeated, stunned by my name for this sanctuary. ‘But they always sleep in paradise…’

‘Isn’t it great, what d’you say? My daddy can make a much better one.’ So she whispered and blushed, and cast down her eyes. Her breasts trembled like two doves seeing a hawk fly past; and the rose that nestled between them, trembled and laughed.

There was a confession and a question in her blushing countenance, but I turned away pretending to understand neither.

*

My despair grew like a spirit of darkness and soon it nearly strangled me. I hated my self, I beat myself, and one day I put on the white shirt-cuffs and my soft coat and went out. And I fell down crying and wallowed in the dirt.

The washerwomen were putting their things up in the sky. They clapped their hands and shouted, ‘Look here, this one has gone nuts! See, he has made his soft coat dirty! And his white shirt-cuffs! That’s bad, that’s sordid! O god, o god!’

People congregated round the washerwomen. They swore and condemned me, and a hail of stones hissed at my back as I went home. But I did not hurry, and the stones fell in front of me and by me, they hit my back, my shoulders and legs; and each blow made me weaker and eased my pain. The dark spirit had got hold of me so tightly that it could only be stoned off me. I gladly went under the stones like under apple trees shaken by autumn winds.

Tired and free I came home and fell into my bed nearly unconscious.

In a while Kindheart came in. There was a frown on his low forehead. His kind lower lip was drooping and trembling.

‘Is this your gratitude, young man? Is this the honour you pay me for all the good things I have done for you? Did I make room for you in our land for this? For you to soil my good name in the eyes of my neighbours?… And if you do not care for my good name, think at least of your own self! What will happen to you if you go on like this? Will our honest citizens suffer your behaviour? They will expel you from your house, nay, from all land will they banish you, and you will get drowned in the sea!

‘Each citizen honours their soft coat, but you throw it down in the dirt. What does your tidy and honest little coat look like now? Where will you go now?’ and he preached a long and a lengthy sermon, tugging at the dirty corners of my coat, and he did not see my tears in that dirt. He went on speaking till his mouth was dry and the jaw ached, and then he left. And his simple face shone with the thought that he had done his human duty.

But I lay there and fell asleep, hurting and dirty.

*

But Fortune [4] had mercy on me and sent me a dream. I do not have beautiful words for those beautiful visions.

I was standing on ice. It felt like the early spring. There was something gentle and clean in the air as if after a warm rain, there was water on ice. The sky had reddish gold stripes, and rosy clouds towered to one side. Gold had rained from the sky and now was on the surface of the water. I took it up in my palm, looked at it, and wept. I felt something great and holy approach me. I raised my eyes, and it was she; the Maiden of North had come!

I knew her at once – her eyes burned with glory that could set all the sky aflame. Her glance made the cloud mountains red and water sparkle like gold.

She had green ice silks on. And shoes shod with silver, but much worn out on the ice were on her feet. Her firm limbs seemed to be made of steel, and she made unwavering steps with her well-shod feet. Her voice was crackling warmly like a burning fire, and her little hand went into mine as a little white pebble washed in waves. She squeezed my hand warmly and said, ‘I know your hot longing for me, and I came to your rescue.’

She put her hand on my heart and bent her head, listened and said, ‘she is quite downcast: the fog has flattened her. But my breath does wonders: your heart will rise with it.’

And she started to breathe on my breast. It was a warm and light breath. Something in my breast melted and came up, and I felt tears run down my cheeks like rain.

‘Cry her out, cry out all the filth from her, so your heart becomes clean and new again.’

‘Hold on, now I will give it some fire!’ and her breath poured on my breast like a moistening swelter.

My breast rose and spread, and I felt that my heart was glowing again.

‘Now you are strong again,’ she said, looking at my face happily. And I melted in the red incandescence of her eyes.

‘Then come, I will show you the heaven!’ she said, and her little hand again went into mine as a little white pebble washed in waves.

She started off, and I followed her, walking through golden flood.

*

She took me to the sky. We ascended rose-colored cloud mountains, went by small racks and all things blushed and glowed under her gaze.

We met the Morning Star on our way. She greeted us kindly.

‘Where are you going?’ the Maiden of North asked.

‘Me? To shine on that hill by the great marsh. Two children are lost there, looking for heaven. They will get drowned in the bog if I do not show the way.’

She went past us like a white flame and her light dwindled in the distance.

‘Stars are my friends,’ the Maiden of North said. ‘We meet here in heaven often .’

She went forward like a sun, and I swam in her light.

We came to a high cloud peak, wrapped in a swarm of snowflakes. All the mountain shook with low rumble. We went up. The little snow bees blushed in her splendour and came up against our faces like pale red apple-blossoms. Strong wind swung them round us, as if now we were the tree the swarm had chosen to settle on. Behind the network of the snowflakes, I saw three huge, snow-covered beehives. As I approached, they seemed to move. Coming closer I saw that they not only moved, but they also had thick arms and mittens that turned sturdy mill-poles in the sky. I looked up and saw that the hives had large heads and beards covered in icicles, red cheeks and small, sparkling eyes.

‘They make the snow,’ the Maiden of North said, ‘look there, below us!’

I looked and saw a vast, muddy field. An old beggar with a dirty sack on his bent back trod through it and looked at the sky entreatingly.

‘The earth is dirty…’ the Maiden of North said quietly, and her voice was drowned in the roar of the snow mills.

The snowflakes spilled out of the mill, curdled into large clouds, spread over the field and slowly started to fall. They came down gently, covering the mud, the rags of the beggar and caressed his grey tear-stained cheeks like white pussy willows. And suddenly I remembered how my mother came back from the church and caressed my cheek with a twig of a pussy willow.

‘Make me turn those mils, too! ‘I shouted eagerly. But she only looked at my fragile stature and smiled. ‘I have something else for you, let us go on,’ she said.

The top of one mountain turned red and riders appeared on it, glowing blue-red, on red horses, they swished away like a wildfire. Their hair followed them like a flame; their swords struck blue sparks as they crossed.

‘These are northern lights,’ the Maiden of North said, they proclaim war in peaceful valleys and call people to long for glorious battles and victories. Do you hear?’ she said, listening.

Sharp hissing came from the land below. ‘They are sharpening their swords. Have a look!’

I did, and I beheld a village. A crowd of northern lights rushed over it in flame. Something like a red sheet was stretching over the roofs of the dark huts; the black widows glowed with fire. Women and children stood outside the doors. They pointed at the lights with fearful cries, and their faces reflected pale terror. But the men, young and old, stood round the grindstones, and their steel sang a sharp battle song. Some were still walking round the houses looking for a weapon. A door opened and a broad-shouldered man came out with a scythe. Calmly he parted the screaming crowd of women and children and stood there untying the scythe from its holder… then he gave the wood to a woman, took the blade, and went to the grindstone.

One of them took up an axe from the grindstone; he drew his finger along the edge – to see if it was sharp enough. The water from the grindstone was dripping from the axe. In the red light of the northern lights, the water seemed to run from the bright blade like blood.

The riders dispersed and dissolved through the dark.

‘Where do they go?’ I asked.

‘The darkness takes them all,’ she answered. ‘But see, a new company is gathering over there.’ She pointed at another mountaintop turning red.

‘Make me one of the northern lights!’ I entreated. ‘I also want to flame and brandish my sword!’

‘No,’ she said, warmly squeezing my hand. ‘I do not want the darkness swallow you. I have something else for you. Come, let us go on!’

We went on.

A wide river folded behind the mountain. A black, huge, broad smith like an evening cloud had hunched over the mountain. He bent down to work on a glowing piece of iron. As his hammer fell, huge round sparks fell into the water like embers. And the glowing face of the smith threw a reddish reflection over the river.

‘See, now the smith turns away and the cool piece of iron returns tot he furnace. The sun has set into the river Daugava. Let us climb up!’

And we ascended into a beautiful blue room, quiet as a sanctuary. Young little pines grew there. They had marvellous sparkling needles. Among them walked tall men, their foreheads high and radiant. They were breaking away the luminous branches and making wreaths. As they took and bound the sharp needles, they hurt their fine fingers; little drops of blood dripped from them and burned in the wreaths like glowing sparkles.

‘Their blood comes from the heart,’ the Maiden said.’ They that deny their own selves most in breaking the twigs and binding them, have the most beautiful wreaths.’

A garland of wreaths, woven for thousands of years, stretched along the side of the sky like a radiant rainbow. Each one added his wreath to it, and this made it scintillate even more.

‘Have a look down,’ the Maiden said.

And I looked. There was a road across the back of a hill. A white light from the many wreaths touched it, and soggy people came out of the dark gullies, cleaned their clothes from mud and dirt, and stood out on the road.

And the Maiden’s voice thundered through the sky. ‘Once the rainbow vault will be full of light, a light brighter and fuller than the sun. All the valleys will be lit by it, and all the people will go up the hills and walk on white roads. See, how the light grows from wreath to wreath. Go, break you branches and make wreaths!’

And again something great and holy approached me, again tears came to my eyes – she kissed me and I woke up.

Her kiss lifted me like a flood. I went out and shouted,

‘Wake up, wake up!’ My shout was so loud that the buttresses of fog trembled and soot fell on my head. ‘Let everything quake and rumble! Beyond these walls of fog, there are heaven and sun, and a fresh morning! ‘

There was a movement in this landscape of death-like sleep. The dogs started barking, dull, sleepy voices rose against the horizon, doors banged, someone called for a rope in a muffled voice, and burly figures fell on me from all sides. They tied my hands and feet and dragged me somewhere through the dark, over mud and stones. They stopped, a lock creaked and door opened with a boom. They pushed me; I fell somewhere over slimy stones; the door closed, and I got up and felt along dank walls in the dark.

Was I in the prison? No, I was free! My heart was full of strength and faith anew. The power of my freedom transcended the damp walls of my cell, and went far wider than the low vault of the local fog.

And I fell on the straw and cried like a prisoner set free. I was set free from a prison that had pale days and grey nights for its walls.

*

I started to think, and sparkling pine-twigs began falling on my lap in the dank well of darkness. Soon all the prison was full of bright radiant waves.

I don’t know how long I spent there. There was no night or morning. My cell was sunlit all the time. Time passed unnoticed whilst I bound and patted the sparkling needles.

The wreath was complete.

I wanted to have some rest and put the wreath in my shadow. Twilight came from the corners, and I fell asleep.

The key screeched again, and I woke up. The door opened with a bang, and the surly red muzzle of the guard appeared in the crack.

He came closer, kicked me and said, ‘Get up; the high land-court summons you!’

This man seemed so miserable to me that I decided to test my wonderful wreath on him. I went with him, keeping the wreath in my shadow. When he locked the door and turned, I threw my wreath on his head.

He got terribly surprised and upset: he spluttered in all directions and tried to shake it off, and the wreath landed on his feet like a bright ring of sunlight. The guard stamped on it and lashed at it with his sword, but the wreath could be neither trodden down nor slashed up. It lay upon the grass with a calm shine like a bright ring of sun.

The guard stopped, he did not know what to do. His eyes were bulging and his jaws trembled. For the first time in his life he had encountered something he could not conquer, something he could neither strangle, nor stamp out, nor slash into pieces.

By the prison, there was a small child in a white shirt, stretched on the grass with its head on its arm. It idly swung legs about and looked around. The wreath sparkled through the grass, and the grass was lit by millions of little white balls of fire, the dewdrops. The child got up in wonder and staring at the dew, came to the wreath.

It stared and stared, eyes wide open – then touched it with a finger. The finger started to shine like a newly lit wax candle. The child ran away with shouts of joy, and disappeared in a dark crowd of young men like a white snowball amidst fir-trees.

The guard, now off his stupor, swore and pushed me on; the wreath remained there on the grass like a radiant ring of the sun.

*

They brought me to a room full of hunched cripples with arms strangely bent. I looked closer and saw that those were not cripples; the people had only bent down, and each one held something under his arm. Maybe these were the people of the court. Everyone was waiting for the beginning in silence.

They saw me standing, and a whisper caught my ears, ‘He does not know how to show respect… carries on so foolishly in the court-room… has no humility…’ and someone looked at me and shook his head and said quite loudly, ‘He is finished!’

The usher of the court came out with a stick and started to level the bent backs. He wanted to bend me, too, but I resisted and remained standing alone as a solitary tree. It seemed, the court would start soon.

Then someone touched my shoulder. I looked back. Kindheart!

No reproach was on his face. I could see that he had forgiven me everything and now wanted to save me. He had the “nightingale” under his arm, the one he had wanted to kill for Martinmas. It was turning its head this way and that and blinking stupidly.

I had to smile. ‘Bend down, bend down, please,’ Kindheart whispered. ‘Fear nothing (even if my face showed no fear whatsoever)! I will try to put a word in for you. Beetlee sends her love, says do not be afraid… she misses you a …’

He stopped abruptly and bent down; the judge entered the room. His beard lifted high, Ramround sat down in the seat of judgement and put his belly on the table.

Kindheart navigated through the people and approached the judge.

The nightingale croaked and the servant took something away under his arm. Two voices quietly rumbled at the court table.

Then they called for me to stand before the court.

Ramround took a piece of paper and spoke, looking at it.

‘Thou, young man, standest accused of the following: that on the very twenty-fourth night of the month of sleep, when all the citizens had partaken of the blessed sleep, thou outrageously forsook thy sleeping chamber and went out and shouted in a fashion whereby a whole region was been roused from sleep. The noise has been said so disturbing that many citizens have not been able to fall asleep for a number of nights. Thou hast broken the most sacred law of this land, i.e. sleep, and thus committed the greatest crime a human can commit. Thou hast disturbed the peace. Accused, what sayest thou to that?’

‘I am glad that your citizens could finally cool their pampered sides from sleep.’

‘Young man, thy words sound too blasphemous to be taken seriously. I see that thou art still full of the recklessness of a boy, and thy crime has been committed in the heat of youth. There is still time to repent! Thy body is as good for growing fat as that of any respectable citizen. A very respectable citizen wants to stand up for you. Humbly kneel in front of the people and promise that thou wilt repent of thy crime, spend thy nights in proper fashion in thy bed, and thou will be forgiven. Otherwise thou wilt be banished into the sea and come to an end there,’ he concluded pompously.

‘You do not need to banish me; I am already out of this small, narrow pigsty that you have built for yourself and your swine. I would not stay here, even if you tied me up!’ I said.

‘O fool, thou laughest at thy homeland,’ the judge cautioned.

‘This is not my homeland! This small, cramped land is too little for my love. My homeland is the whole earth!’

‘Those that despise this blessed land are banished from it. Tomorrow thou wilt return to the sea whence thou camest.’ the verdict was strictly proclaimed.

‘No, I will not return! I will go forward, through your sky.’

‘Do so, and break thy head against it,’ the judge mocked me.

*

A crowd had gathered to watch how I would break my head against the sky. Dogs drooled and waited for my blood.

Beetlee came out of her house and followed me like a pale shadow. Her shoulders quaked with crying.

I walked by the prison and saw my wreath in the hands of a youth. Young men and children had gathered round him, and their faces reflected the radiance of the wreath.

‘Come with me, and I will take you out of these vaults of strangling fogs!’ I shouted.

The young men took up the wreath and followed me with shouts of joy. But their fathers caught their coats and pulled them back, and stood in their way with sticks and stones. Their mothers hugged them with many tears and wailing.

They remained fighting, but I went straight into the sky with faith that made the fog part obediently. A fresh breeze hit my face and a bright light dazzled my eyes.

‘Sun! Heaven! Sea!’

And there was my ship on the waves and the coracle in the sand, waiting for me.

I ran down to the beach like I had grown wings.

And again, I was on board the ship. The moist wings of the wind rose and fell with a swish, the waves were high. The sun washed me in gold by day; the stars showed me the way by night.

I looked at the horizon without end and thought, the world has no end, and the sky has no beginning. The real life is as big as the world and as high as the sky.

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[1] The Sun is feminine in Latvian, hence – she has daughters. The Moon, being masculine, has sons.

[2] Stars are also feminine in Latvian

[3] Earth is feminine and mother in Latvian

[4] Fortune is a feminine Latvian deity

Skalbe Main

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© Translation Lauma T. Lapa