A shepherdess in Borohrady had an only son whose name was Yanechek, but that one son was more trouble to her than ten daughters would have been to any other mother. Yanechek was in truth a very mischievous boy. There was not one of his playmates, girl or boy, upon whom he had not practised some trick; and not a woman in Borohrady who had not complained of his pranks to his mother, the widow Dorothy.
“Gossip Dorothy,” cried Mistress Betusche, “your Yanechek fastened my door on the outside last night, and I had to call to my neighbours for half a day before I could get out.”
“Shepherdess Dorothy,” said the magistrate one day in the village market-place, “if I catch Yanechek in my pigeon-house again I will send him to prison.”
“My dear Dorothy,” complained Mistress Anichka, “last night, at twelve o’clock, Yanechek frightened us dreadfully.”
And thus it was day after day: “Gossip Dorothy, Shepherdess Dorothy, My dear Dorothy,” and day after day Dorothy shed tears over her troubles.
“Why don’t you correct the boy?” suggested the shepherdess’s brother.
But Dorothy was afraid to whip her mischievous son, because that would make him cry; and the boy, knowing his mother’s weakness, did as he pleased without fear. In his mischief he did not consider his mother’s feelings in the least. He would chase the goats up the steepest rocks, while his mother, Dorothy, standing at the bottom, would scream, “Come down, Yanechek!” at the top of her voice, her heart ready to break with fear. But Yanechek would climb to the very top, then seize the thin branches of a bush with his right hand and bend his whole body forward, so that it appeared as if he were suspended in the air, or upon the point of falling down to cut himself to pieces on the sharp rocks beneath. At this sight his poor mother Dorothy would be seized with a fainting fit, and crying, “Heaven help me!” would fall senseless to the ground. Then, as the poor shepherdess began to recover from her swoon, the wicked Yanechek would hold her in his arms, crying,—
“Open your eyes, mother! open your eyes!”
And as soon as his mother opened her eyes, Yanechek would jump up, turn round on his heel, and clapping his hands together would cry joyfully,—
“Mother is alive again! Mother is alive again!”
And the shepherdess, instead of taking a cane to chastise her mischievous son, would simply say,—
“How you frightened me, you naughty boy!”
And this reproof seemed to her a sufficient punishment for her dear son.
But the wicked boy caused the greatest anxiety to his mother Dorothy when he went to bathe in the large pool. There was no part of that pool, deep as it was, where Yanechek did not dive to the bottom. On warm days he would splash about in the smooth water, turn somersaults, and leap and gambol like a playful carp. Or he would climb up the willow trees growing on the bank of the pool, and from the highest and thinnest branches he would spring headlong into the cool, deep water.
“Yanechek! Yanechek!” his mother often cried, “don’t bathe in the pool. You will fall into the Water Demon’s net some day.”
“I don’t care for the Water Demon,” the boy would answer laughing. Then he would run into the forest and gather a cap full of strawberries or a basket of mushrooms for his mother. For Dorothy was very fond of strawberries with milk, and of stewed mushrooms, and so long as she had these dainties on her table she never punished Yanechek, and he might run and bathe in the pool as often as he liked.
One day, when the dainty shepherdess had some mushrooms for dinner, Yanechek went to the pool, ran up the steep bank and plunged into the calm water. He began to gambol about, dive, and then rising again stuck his legs up in the air. All at once he raised up his head, stretched out his arms and screamed for help as if in the agonies of death. The labourers in the field, hearing his cries ran to his assistance. They seized him by the hair of the head and drew him to land. There the wretched boy lay lifeless; he neither moved nor breathed. The peasants laid him on his stomach, so that the water might run from him more freely, and not knowing what next to do, some ran for the shepherdess and some for the doctor.
Shepherdess Dorothy had just begun to eat her stewed mushrooms when the country people brought her the sad news that her son was drowned. Horror-stricken, she dropped the wooden spoon, and pale and with her hair hanging loose, rushed towards the pool to her poor boy Yanechek. But the miserable boy was nowhere to be found: in vain they sought for his body among the bushes, in the fields, and in the water. When the evening came, Dorothy, her eyes red with crying and her dress in disorder, returned to her hut with the neighbours who came to comfort her. Although the mischievous conduct of Yanechek had dug a deep gulf between her and the people about her, yet the grief of the mother built a bridge over it, and they came to comfort the bereaved widow. No sooner had they entered the hut than they were seized with terror, and rushed out of the door again, screaming, “A ghost! a ghost!”
Yanechek sat at the table at which a lamp was burning, and where a dish full of stewed red mushrooms was steaming. He was eating and evidently enjoying the savoury dish.
“You wicked boy!” exclaimed Dorothy, both surprised at the sight of her unexpected visitor and vexed at the rapid disappearance of her favourite delicacy; “is it right to treat your mother in this way?”
“Are you vexed, mother,” cried Yanechek laughing at her, “that I have been eating mushrooms?”
Then he jumped upon the table, lay down, and putting his hands under his chin, made faces at her.
“The Water Demon take you!” cried the shepherdess, her cheeks turning red, really angry for the first time in her life with Yanechek. But the next instant her face grew deadly pale again, for through the window came the words,—
“It shall be so! It shall be so!”
The widow Dorothy, horrified at the sound, turned towards the window and saw a white face outside looking at her with a fiendish smile on its lips. Yanechek jumped down from the table, seized his mother’s stick, and ran with it out of the hut. In the darkness of the evening he could just make out some person fleeting away. He raised the stick and threw it after the figure; but the stick fell to the ground only a little way before him, and from a distance came a burst of malicious laughter mingled with which came the words distinctly uttered,—
“It shall be so! It shall be so!”
It was a summer day. The sun shone warmly on fields and gardens, on rivulets and lakes. On the bank of the still pool, Yanechek, the mischievous son of Dorothy the shepherdess, danced about joyfully. He whistled aloud and undressed himself that he might make a plunge into the cool water. On the surface of the water there floated a bunch of most beautiful flowers, so beautiful that it was difficult to tell whether they were really flowers or a cluster of precious stones. The flowers seemed to smile upon Yanechek, and to say to him, “Come and take us, we will gladden your heart until your life’s end.” Thus the flowers enticed him to take them. But the boy was as cunning as a fox, and cried out,—
“You must get yourself another bait, Mr. Water Demon. You have prepared your nosegay in vain this time, you stupid Water Demon. I will stick the flowers in my hat without wetting my foot-soles.”
Thus said Yanechek, and having broken off a long branch from the nearest willow tree, he bent over the water as he tried to draw the flowers to the bank. But as he bent forward with the long rod the beautiful flowers floated a little farther from the bank, and Yanechek, growing angry and impatient to reach them, went step by step slowly into the cool water as he followed the flowers. They tempted him so much that he did not notice that he had already reached the middle of the pool. Now, however, he could reach the flowers with the long rod, and he drew them towards him that he might seize them with his hand. As he grasped them he entangled his hand in a fine net which the Water Demon had spread round the flowers; and the more he tried to draw the prize towards him, the more the net pulled him towards the bottom of the pool. At last Yanechek let go the flowers, but he could not disentangle himself from the net, for what the Water Demon has once seized he does not easily let go. Then Yanechek began to scream with all his might for help,—
“Help, good people, help! The Water Demon is drowning me!”
But the people working in the fields, although they heard his cries, turned a deaf ear to his entreaties. They said angrily,—
“And let him drown you, you wicked boy!”
The miserable, struggling Yanechek was dragged deeper and deeper. At last he was overwhelmed by the water, and on the top of it there appeared a little man in a green dress, who called out to the people in the fields, whilst a diabolical smile played upon his face,—
“It shall be so! It shall be so!”
Shepherdess Dorothy waited for her son Yanechek that whole day and night in vain. Early next morning, as she ran round the bank of the pool in search of her mischievous but much-loved son, she saw his hat, waistcoat, and shirt lying on the ground, and thus learnt with intense grief how it was she had waited in vain so long. She would have thrown herself into the cold, still water after him in her despair, if her neighbours had not prevented her. Weeping bitterly the poor widow collected the remains of the dress of her unhappy boy, and by degrees the love of the mother’s heart gave her courage instead of despair, and desire of revenge instead of vain lamentation. For nine days she plaited a rope out of nine pieces of bast, and with this strongly-woven cord she hid herself among some bushes near the pool to wait for the Water Demon.
“If I stay here three times seven days my body will become as thin as a shadow, and the wicked Water Demon will not see his enemy.”
Speaking thus to herself, Dorothy took courage and waited three times seven days, and her body dried up and became as thin as a shadow; her mother’s love alone kept her alive, for that love was her only food and her only comfort.
Nine times in a year the Water Demon leaves his palace built under the water, to walk upon the warm earth and see whom he may entice to his cold bed. Then he listens to the curses of the wicked and the profane words of the ungodly. Only once each time can he make his choice of an innocent man sacrificed to him by the immutable decrees of Fate. The Water Demon walks on the earth in a green dress-coat, and every time the eye of a human being glances at him the water drops from his left coat-tail. This time also, as Dorothy still watched among the bushes on the bank of the pool—and she waited there more than three times seven days—the Water Demon came out of the water in a green dress-coat. The heart of the shepherdess began to beat more quickly and her hands to shake as the Water Demon made the first step on the dry land, where his power ceases. She came out softly from among the bushes, and like a mere shadow walked in the footsteps of the evil Water Demon. As she followed in his track she made a running knot in the rope of nine times plaited bast, and cast it round the leg of the Water Demon just as he was about to leap over a field ditch. Having fastened the rope round his leg she tore off his left coat-tail, and the Water Demon, deprived of his power, struggled like an obstinate ram, and neighed like a wild horse. Dorothy dragged the Water Demon by the rope to her hut, carefully avoiding the least puddles, lest he should touch even the smallest drop of water. Arrived at her hut, Dorothy fastened the wicked spirit near the oven by a strong knot, then put in some dry faggots, lit them, and the oven soon became as hot as the summer sun at mid-day. Then the Water Demon began to wail piteously, and Dorothy approaching him set on to sing,—
“Oh, Water Demon! Water Demon! Give me back my son, give me back my Yanechek!”
But the Water Demon paid no attention to her words, but ground his teeth at her with rage. When, however, the woman kept on adding fuel to the fire and still continued her song, the Evil Spirit, dried up by the heat, lost his strength and youthful appearance, and became like a withered old man. With this change into a man a hundred years old, came also upon him the pains and infirmities of age, and sighing for his liberty he at last told Dorothy how she could again see her son Yanechek, and could release him from the water palace. Upon this she promised to let the Water Demon free, and full of hope, started on her way.
Searching for her son the mother came to the bank of the pool, and there, carrying out the instructions of the Water Demon, she repeated the following words,—
“Mother Well! Mother Well! Listen to what the master says: open thy waters to the bottom!”
As soon as she had uttered these words the waters opened, and there appeared before her stairs leading down into the depths of the pool. These stairs Dorothy courageously descended, while the crystal waters grew up higher and higher as she went down. Gradually the stairs and the passage became narrower, so that the withered form of the widow could only pass through with difficulty. At last her farther progress was stopped by a large, green frog. Then Dorothy, remembering the instructions of the Water Demon, said these words,—
“Oh, Frog! Frog! Hear what the master says, open a passage for me!”
As soon as she had said this the mouth of the frog opened like a large gate, its body changed into pillars like bright emeralds, and above them shone the eyes of the frog like two suns. Through this gate the widow entered a large and lofty hall; larger and loftier than any church she had ever seen. The walls were spread all over with sparkling glass, and all around were bright shining places, as if of pure silver, where there was an incredible number of holes filled with little silver jars; so many were there that the simple shepherdess could never have counted them. The hall was beautiful indeed, but it was cold and full of terrors. Suppressed cries of pain and agonising sighs came from the little jars under which the Water Demon kept the lost souls of the drowned imprisoned. A frightful prison for the unhappy spirits: they moaned and sobbed in despair, as if laden with heavy and grievous sins. Full of both fear and hope, Dorothy began to knock at the little jars with her bent finger.
“Are you here, my son Yanechek?” she asked in a trembling voice.
“I am Veit, condemned to everlasting torments here for having sought relief from a bad wife by death in the water. Another woman won my love.”
“Are you here, my son Yanechek?”
“I am called Voyteh. I cheated the orphan children committed to my charge: I could not longer endure the reproaches of my conscience, and drowned myself from despair.”
“Are you here, my son Yanechek?” asked the widow as she went on. She would receive answers to her questions, and then would follow sighs and groans terrible to hear. The poor woman’s heart grew more and more anxious and sad.
Thus poor Dorothy the shepherdess continued to knock at the silver jars, one after the other, for nine times nine days, because the wicked Water Demon had not clearly explained to her where to seek for Yanechek. At last, almost worn out with fatigue, she cast a timid glance at the last two jars. “Are you here, my son Yanechek?” she asked, her voice sinking to a whisper; and she touched the shelf with her finger, fully expecting to receive an evil answer. No sooner had she done so than there came a sound from one of the little jars as when an empty vessel is struck. It broke loudly and harshly on the ears of the shepherdess, for the sound was like a human voice, and it seemed to say, “Yanechek is not here; but here is a place prepared for a mother who rears a wicked son.” As the sound seemed to form itself into these words a dreadful fear seized the soul of the shepherdess, and her senses began to fail her. Low, suppressed cries of pain moaned in her ears, mingled with fiendish laughter; innumerable silver jars whirled round and round before her eyes, and the sighs and the laughter seemed to come from the silver jars, and to say to her,—
“Yanechek is not here; but here is a place prepared for you!”
Then the great hall itself began to turn round and round about Dorothy, and she felt as if she should faint away. In the midst of her distress and sense of sickness she fancied she could hear sighs of pain from the last little jar. They seemed like the cries of her lost Yanechek when at home feigning illness. “Oh, help, mother, help!” These words came indeed from the last little jar, and the sound of them revived the poor mother again. She recognised her son with her soul; she quickly lifted up the jar, and Yanechek sprang out of his narrow prison.
“May you stick fast in a swamp, you slow mother!” cried the liberated son.
But the mother, doting on her wicked boy, did not hear the cruel words. She looked with intense commiseration on his thin face, his sunken eyes, his pale lips and bony hands, and covered his emaciated body with kisses.
“What did you eat here, my poor boy?”
“Despair was my food.”
“What did you drink here, my poor boy?”
“Despair was my drink.”
To every question Dorothy put to him, his answer was “Despair.” And the mother’s heart was again troubled, and a new fear seized her lest despair should come over her son again. Then she took her boy in her arms and carried him out of the Water Demon’s hall. She passed through the frog’s gate, up the narrow stairs between the crystal walls, to the top of the lake, and never stopped till she reached the green bank. On the green bank she laid her dear burden—laid her Yanechek—on the soft grass, sat down by the dear boy, stroked his face and said sweet words to him. But the wicked Yanechek lay there with a gloomy scowling face, never answering his mother, and turning his eyes constantly on the ground. But when Dorothy began to tell him how she had plaited a nine-fold rope of bast for the Water Demon, how she had watched for him, how she had caught and fastened him near the oven, the face of Yanechek gained more colour than through the fresh air, and his eyes sparkled more brightly than from the soft, sweet kisses of his mother.
“And is the Water Demon still fastened to the oven?” demanded Yanechek, springing to his feet.
“Yes,” answered his mother. “The Water Demon cannot break the nine-fold bast rope, nor can he untie the knot.”
“Have you the sharp axe still at home?” again asked Yanechek.
“Yes; but what do you want with it?”
“I don’t want it; but the Water Demon must have a cut with it behind his ear.”
“Heaven preserve you from such a deed! I have promised the Water Demon his freedom.”
“You have promised him that!” cried Yanechek. “You silly mother! you have promised him his freedom that he may catch me again, and you too, perhaps. No! no! this fiend shall never go back to his cold hall; you may carry him there without his head.”
Having thus spoken, Yanechek ran along the bank of the pool towards his mother’s hut. The shepherdess could with difficulty keep up with him. She followed him, panting for breath, and unable as she felt herself to be to prevent her son from carrying out his purpose, fresh anxiety filled her heart for his own safety. Yanechek was still her dearest treasure, for him she would have done anything. As soon as they reached the hut, Yanechek seized the sharp-edged axe, too sharp and too heavy for his wasted body, and ran with it into the room where the Water Demon was still fastened to the oven.
“Now, you evil thing,” cried Yanechek, as thirsting for revenge he raised the axe in the air; “have you got some flowers for me that I may make you a funeral garland?”
“Bow! bow!” barked the Water Demon, changing immediately into a black shaggy dog, and showing his teeth.
The wicked boy grew furious with rage, the widow was terrified for her son and screamed, “Strike the monster dead!” Yanechek took aim and threw the axe at the dog. But the Water Demon had sharp eyes, and sprang aside, and the axe fell on the nine-fold bast rope and cut it in two. The dog, freed from his strong fetters, flew past Yanechek on to the oaken table where stood the shepherdess’s water-jug. The water in this jug, during all the time of Dorothy’s absence, as she sat watching among the bushes, and when she was tapping at the silver jars, had not quite dried up. There was still one drop of water at the bottom. On this drop the dog set his paw, and in an instant his former young and vigorous form returned. Then he overturned the jug, and that single drop of water became a strong flood, like a summer torrent among the mountains, and quickly filled the room with its fast flowing waters. In those waters the wicked Yanechek and his weak-minded, indulgent mother were drowned. Full of terror and despair, both mother and son called loudly for help as the water rose and bubbled up to their very throats. The Water Demon, a fiendish smile upon his lips, walked on the top of the rolling waves and stretched out his icy-cold hands to Dorothy and Yanechek. As soon as he had caught hold of them he dived with them into the deep, took them to his cold hall, and there imprisoned the two unhappy souls each under a narrow jar.
For many years afterwards a dark, deep pool was to be seen on the spot where the shepherdess Dorothy’s hut once stood, and the people living near would tell travellers the story of the unhappy mother and of her son Yanechek.