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Bygone days are in the past, that’s true, but sometimes happenings in the days of yore seem to have occurred just yesterday. They say that, what you hear or what you see when you are young, stays with you until your dying day. That wool-spinning old woman, also used to spin yarns for us, young girls, and we absorbed eagerly her every word, her stories of the way things were in the past, of wonders of olden times.
Here is one of the old woman’s stories. Once upon a time there lived an old Cossack named Zadorozhko with his wife. Out of their love, with God’s help, was born a son, a wonderful boy. And what a manly, handsome and stalwart young man he grew up to be! Tymish had a magnificent horse, his attire and his arms were truly knightly, and he was chivalrous and gallant. And he had a loving heart and was of a magnanimous and cheerful disposition. And mark my words — he loved and respected his parents. They were so happy and overjoyed, and thanked God for blessing them with a son like that.
Then came time for the old Zadorozhko to end his days on earth — God claimed him. The dying old man asked his wife and his son not to be grieving over him, and to give him a good funeral. Then he blessed them and departed this life for good.
“Don’t cry, mother,” Tymish said soothingly to his old mother. “By being so disconsolate, you offend God.”
“My dear child, how can I stop crying when the tears are springing out of my eyes all by themselves? I’ve lived a good and quiet life, I was so happy to have a loving husband, and now he is gone! Wherever I look in the house, or in the garden, or in the backyard I seem to be seeing him!”
“Wipe off your tears, old dear. I have to leave now as there are things for me to do — but before I go I’ll walk you to the neighbors’ place. You should not stay alone. May good Hanna help you deal with your grief.”
“Yes, right, my good boy — take me to Hanna!”
Hanna was a widow who had an only daughter named Khyma. It was a nice girl, as radiant as a bloom, with sparkling eyes. She was Tymish’s age peer, they had been growing up together like brother and sister. They played together, they shared joy and sorrow, they were fond of each other just like true lovebirds. If a day passed without Tymish seeing her, he felt he was missing something sorely, and Khyma would have her eyes brimming with tears if her dark-haired neighbor did not come by at the end of the day. People could not help seeing what was going on and said, “Let their love flourish! God willing, they will be happily married!”
There were quite a few other young men who were enchanted by Khyma. The moment she walked out into the street, they would rush towards her, trying to attract her attention. But the proud girl would pass by, ignoring their advances. It was only the handsome Tymish who was on her mind, it was only for him she was looking out morning and evening. Without seeing him she was sad, but the moment she saw him, she was overjoyed and she felt it was so good to be alive in this world.
However, in this world there’s no joy, they say, without alloy. Fortune has not only smiles for us but frowns too — once, some time after his father had died, Tymish failed to turn up at Khyma’s place. Then another day passed without Khyma’s seeing him, and still another. Khyma’s nights became sleepless, and her days were spent in anguish of waiting – she could not sit still, she kept pacing restlessly up and down her garden. She was treading on her fragrant flowers which she had been taking such a good care of. She was oblivious of anything around her, her faithful heart was filled with sorrow, misery and gloom.
Then, after days of watching out for Tymish, she spied him in the street on his way home. Khyma rushed out of her house and confronted him. He looked quite cheerful and unaware of her torments.
“My dear friend, won’t you say a word to me? I’ve not seen you for so long! Have you forgotten about me? If you do not care to see me any longer, tell me the truth!”
“My good girl,” said Tymish, “I’m very, very sorry, but I must tell you something that will sadden you as it saddens me too — I do not think I’ll be proposing to you…”
“What? Have you found someone else who is better than me? Can she love you as deeply as I do? Oh please tell me — who is she? I want to know and to see the girl who is ruining my life!”
“Let her be, Khyma! Don’t be angry with her! She is very gentle and her soul is kind. She’s all alone in this world.”
“I think I know who you are talking about! It’s Olena! Am I right? So it’s her place you go to every night! I’ve been crying my eyes out, the world has darkened for me, and you look so happy and radiant! Are you going to marry her? Are you two getting along well? Woe unto me! Are you really going to take her for wife?
“Yes, I’ll propose to her on Sunday.”
“But why are you in such a hurry to wed her? What if it turns out that she is not good for you after all?”
“Why are you making evil prophesies? Don’t croak disaster — it’s unkind of you!”
“Now, Tymish, listen to me carefully — leave that girl of yours! What right does she have to do what she has done to me? Leave her — or you’ll be so sorry! You’ll regret it if you don’t do it — you’ll be regretting it for the rest of your life! But no matter how much you may repent, there will be no coming back!”
“Leave her? No I won’t! You are saying evil things! As long as I live, as long as the sun shines, I’ll never betray her, I’ll never leave her!”
“Think well, Tymish, think well! Is it your final word? Will you leave her?”
“May a great misfortune befall me if I ever leave her!”
“All right then! And know that a misfortune will surely strike!”
And she turned and dashed back to her house.
“It was surely mean of her to say what she has said!” mumbled Tymish and his heart grew heavy. But then Olena came to his mind and in his mind’s eye he saw how good she was, gentle as a lamb, sunny and fair as dawn, tender and humble as a dove! With her image conjured up before him, he exclaimed,
“May I be punished severely if I leave you, my precious one!”
Before he declared his proposal of marriage, Tymish sought his mother’s advice,
“My dear mother, I’m in love with a girl and I want to take her for wife. Will you bless my marriage?”
“God will bless you, my son! Yes, my good boy, marry the girl you love! Khyma will be happy with you.”
“It’s not Khyma, mother, it’s Olena Bondarivna.”
“Oh, Olena? I’ve always been sure it would be Khyma! She’s such a nice girl! And she treats me with great respect, she does. But if you have given your heart to Olena, then you must plight your troth to Olena. I’ll accept anyone as long as she loves you.”
The ceremony of the official betrothal was held complete with all the proper accoutrements — embroidered decorative towels and all the rest of things that tradition required. When the old Hanna, Khyma’s mother, heard of the engagement, she was upset.
“My dear daughter, looks you are not destined to be with Tymish. It’s a pity — I was sure that come autumn he’d take you to wife and you would be married in church.”
“There seems nothing stable and sure in this world,” said Khyma glumly.
“Don’t be gloomy, my dear! I’m sure you’ll find even a better husband for yourself. Thank God, you are so young and so good-looking! You’re like a ripe apple!”
Once in the evening, when Tymish, full of good cheer and brimming with happy anticipation, was on his way to see Olena, he suddenly saw Khyma who emerged, as a ghost, in front of him. She looked pale, somber and sullen.
Khyma said harshly, without any greeting,
“Now, tell me — will you leave her?”
At first he was so taken aback that he could not say anything, and then he mastered his consternation, and said,
“No, by God, I will not leave Olena! It’s very unreasonable and rude of you to demand it! Haven’t you heard that I am engaged to her?”
“I ask you one last time — will you leave her?”
“I’d better die rather than live without her.”
“That’s your last word?”
“Yes, it is.”
The next day Khyma said to her mother,
“I’ll go to see Aunt. I need some diversion.”
Khyma’s aunt lived in a neighboring village, not too far away.
“Yes, my dear, go, you do need some diversion. Pour your heart out and may it help you.”
But Khyma did not go to her aunt’s place — instead she went to the distant forest where, she had been once told, there lived an old witch. The wretched Khyma thought the witch could help her in her distress.
When she reached the outskirts of the village, Khyma looked around and seeing no one was in sight, she chose the road that led to the pine forest rather than the one that led to the neighboring village. It was quiet, the only sounds being the rustling of a lonely willow that stood at the crossroads and the burbling of water somewhere in the distance.
It turned out she had to walk a long way. She passed hills with outcroppings of rock, and green meadows. The closer it was getting to the noontime, the hotter was the sun; her bare feet were sore from walking on sharp-edged pebbles; her hair was full of prickly bracts from the thistles. But she kept walking on. When she was passing by a pond, she stopped and looked at her reflection in the clear water. She saw that she had changed so much that she could hardly recognize herself. “What has happened to my beauty? Why is it gone? But what do I need beauty for? I have no need for it any longer! May I lose my beauty for ever as long as I’d be able to do what I intend to!”
At last she arrived at the pine forest.
Standing at the edge of the forest, she looked at the sun and saw that it was already low above the horizon, and the sky had already begun to change color. The trees in the dense forest stood so close to each other that as she stepped among them she found herself in darkness.
The deeper she went into the forest, the darker it became. Cracking and other noises came from everywhere; the echoes reverberated; she seemed to hear someone whispering her name. She lost track of time and knew not where she was. Then she saw two mighty oaks in front of her, and there was a woman sitting between the boles of those oaks. The woman was so old and ancient that she was overgrown with moss. Khyma was struck dumb with fright.
It was the old woman who spoke first,
“What did you come here for, so young and beautiful?”
“I… I came to see you, I’ve come to ask you to help me.”
And Khyma told the old woman what had happened to her and why she was distressed.
The witch listened and then said,
“All right, I’ll tell you what to do.”
“Oh, please do!”
The witch produced a knife and beckoned Khyma to come closer. In her other hand the witch held a small feather.
“Stretch your left hand!”
Khyma did as she was bidden.
The witch slashed with the knife across the tip of one of Khyma’s fingers, and as the blood began dripping from the cut, the witch dipped the feather into the blood, and said,
“Now, you have the power over those who have hurt you.”
By the time Khyma found her way out of the forest, the sun had already set. Khyma felt that she possessed some superhuman powers — she turned into a swallow and flew back to her village. When she got there, the dark was already setting in. Khyma fell on the ground in front of Olena’s house and turned into an old woman. She could see through the window that Olena was sitting among her friends, wearing a flower wreath on her head. Olena looked beautiful and happy, luminous with good cheer, with serene love in her eyes. Her friends were hovering around her as bees hover over the flowers. They surrounded Olena as wild flowers surround a majestic rose.
Seeing this, Khyma felt her heart ache, “Aha, you’re having a hen party! So I’ve come just in time!”
Khyma enetered the house. She was greeted and asked who she was and where she came from. Instead of answering, the old woman pushed the window open and stretching her hands towards the girls, cried out in a terrible voice,
“Fly, the bride, fly like a bird, and the rest of you — follow her! Chirp and fly to the end of time!”
As she uttered the spell, the girls turned into birds and flew out of the window, beating their wings wildly. And leading the little flock was Olena.
The village filled lamentations and mounting fear when the girls’ disappearance was discovered. They were searched for everywhere but they were not to be found — they had had disappeared as though swallowed by the earth.
Tymish was so distressed he could not stay at one place and in despair paced the streets up and down.
In his aimless wanderings, he unexpectedly came across Khyma. Staring at her, he could not help remembering her ill prophesizing.
“There you are, prophetess of doom! It was you who have brought disaster! May you never see a happy day in your life either!” shouted Tymish and ran away.
She followed the hastily retreating Tymish with her eyes and for one moment she felt pity for him. But a moment later, she cried out,
“We’ll see how things turn out!”
Time, they say, is a great healer. Once, a year later, Tymish’s mother said to her son,
“My dear boy, you should marry! Look at yourself — you are young and yet you are withering away! Marry – and you’ll forget your grief! What’s gone is gone and you can’t bring it back! Give peace to my old heart. I wish so much I would live the rest of my days which are numbered, in peace and joy, thanking God and you, my boy!”
“My dear old mother! I will never be able to find a girl like Olena to call my wife! I can’t marry anyone else!”
“What about Khyma, your old flame? She’s really a good girl, she respects me. May God be good to her too and give her some happiness. I know she still loves you!”
“To marry Khyma? But she’s my sworn enemy! It was she who wished me ill and foretold disaster!”
“Ah my dear son, let bygones be bygones! Everything is in God’s hands. Besides, the girl was upset and when one is upset one may say foolish things! Her words could have been unkind, but they could not bring disaster!”
And since that day, Tymush’s mother began persuading him to change his mind and marry Khyma. The old woman used tears and kind words to make him change his mind, and, as they say, drops eat away stone, and Tymish began to soften up — his mother kept pleading with her son to take pity on her, the old woman, who had raised him who had lost her health raising him and now all she asked was to give her a bit of joy in her old age.
Tymish succumbed to his mother’s entreaties and proposed to Khyma. Soon they were wed and Tymish’s mother was indeed overjoyed to have such a daughter-in-law — Khyma was full of deference to her, always obedient, always ready to help and do what needed to be done. She was like a native daughter to Tymish’s mother. And she went out of her way to coddle and humor Tymish and indulge his every whim but he continued to be gloomy and unresponsive.
Khyma was not put off by Tymish’s coldness and kept pampering and babying him as though he were a child, and when Tymish did reward her efforts with a smile, it was as though the sun had come out to dispel the gloom. Tymish’s smile made her buoyantly happy — her eyes began to sparkle and her cheeks began to glow with a flush.
Once, when Tymish and Khyma were sitting in their garden on the grass, not talking, in a gloomy silence, and Khyma was trying to meet his gaze and do something to dispel the gloom, they heard some birds burst into a wild chirping. One of the birds was hovering right above Tymish’s head, circling and getting lower and lower. The birds’s wings almost touched his head.
Khyma grabbed Tymish by the hand and cried out,
“Go get your gun, Tymish, and shoot this bird!”
“Why should I do an evil thing like that! To kill a harmless chirping bird!”
“Please do shoot it, my beloved husband, please do it!” Khyma begged Tymish, squeezing his hand harder and harder.
“No, I won’t do it. And don’t ask me to do it ever again.”
“You won’t? Your loving wife is begging you to do her a little favor and you refuse? You don’t care for me at all, do you?” and Khyma burst into tears.
Her tears fell on Tymosh’s hand and they felt as though they would scald his skin.
“Your tears are like boiling water!” exclaimed Tymish.
“It is because they are so bitter! Please don’t make me cry so much!”
And she began to beg him again to shoot the bird. But he refused to do it and shouted at her,
“Get away from me, evil woman! Be off!”
Khyma scrambled to her feet and ran away.
And the bird never stopped circling above Tymish’s head. Tymish took a better look at the bird and for some reason he greatly enjoyed looking at it and listening to its lovely singing. And he even felt that tears began to well in his eyes — and a moment later the tears began rolling down his cheeks in a flood. He fell on the ground sobbing, his copious tears bedewing the grass.
Loud croaking above him made him raise his head. He saw a black raven chase away the birds and then attack the bird that caused Tymish to shed tears. The raven wanted to knock down the bird with its beak or wings, but the bird managed to dodge, the raven flying after it in hot pursuit. Tymish rushed into the house, grabbed the gun, ran out and shot the raven. The black bird hit the ground at his feet. Lo and behold — it was not a raven any more but his wife, blood spurting from her chest. And right by her side there was lying his Olena, his beautiful, beloved fiancee! She looked full of life, the way she was on that fateful evening, wearing her fine dress and a flower wreath — but she was dead.
Khyma turned into dust right before Tymish’s eyes.
Olena was buried in the churchyard, near a cherry tree. A cross was erected at her grave, and many tiny birds perched on the cross, chirping mournfully. The birds were seen coming every spring and singing over Olena’s grave.
Tymish did not live long — his grief and sorrow drove him to his grave. His house was in ruins, the garden was choked with weeds, the well by the house got clogged. Moss and dust covered this scene of desolation.