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Orysya An Idyl
It is sung in songs that there is no greater beauty than the glow of dawn in fair weather. But those who saw the daughter of the late sotnyk1 Tavolha would surely say that she was even more beautiful than the glow of dawn in fair weather. She was more beautiful than the full moon shining in the night sky, even more beautiful than the sun itself that fills with joy the fish in the sea, the beasts in the woods, and the flowers in the field.
Maybe it is a sin to say that a girl could be fairer than the hallowed sun and the moon — whoever heard of such a claim? Probably we, men, sinners as we are, are born into this world to admire the female beauty, and when we actually see it, we begin to think that there is nothing fairer either in the sky or on the earth.
Was Tavolha’s daughter lovely! She was known far and wide across the whole country. That’s how things are in Ukraine — if you have a fair daughter growing up in your household, her beauty is trumpeted to the whole world. Young men came to Viytovka where the fair maiden lived from afar just to find out what that girl Orysya was really like, and why there was so much talk about her. Unfortunately for them, access to the girl was denied and there was no way they could start their courtship, and they left empty-handed, feeling it was just a wild goose chase.
I can’t say why all of the suitors were getting the mitten — either the father was too proud, or the girl herself was too good. I don’t know but I do know that many a failed wooer, upon returning from a visit to Viytovka would spend days submerged in despondency. When a friend asked the poor devil why he was sunk in gloom, the wretch would say, “All this appetence and wooing are for nothing! It is not for us that this flower has bloomed! Maybe there will be someone who will pluck it and put it behind his cap band, but it will be none of the likes of us…” and the questioner would leave the sufferer, shaking his head and thinking to himself, “Well, that girl seems to have been this fine man’s undoing!”
Orysya, as she emerged from adolescence, was as fine and straight as a poplar at the meadow. As he looked at her, at her imposing stature and dazzling beauty, the old sotnyk rejoiced in his heart, thinking what a delight and consolation it was to have a daughter like that in his old age. But every now and then his thoughts would make him a little sad, “My dear daughter, the apple of my eye, you are ripe like an ear of grain in the field ready for harvest — but will the one who will take you to wife know that he is going to be blessed by a great gift from Our Merciful God? There are many sedate and staid men of consequence among those who come to ask you in marriage, but I would surely hate to see you married to a gray-haired old fogy who would wither you with his jealousy like an icy wind shrivels a blade of grass in the field. Neither would I let you marry a young daredevil who can’t live long without adventures and battles, and will soon bite the dust in the boundless steppe, and will leave you grieving and raising children all alone!”
Such thoughts and worries which besieged him, made him sad, sometimes so sorrowful that a tear would roll down his cheek.
Her father’s anxieties did not affect Orysya’s blooming beauty in the least. Whenever she was seen flitting around the house and garden like a butterfly, everyone’s heart in her father’s household was filled with a great joy inspired by her majestic pulchritude. When she ambled along an alley, she would be compared to a bee walking over the honeycomb.
Once Orysya had an exceedingly strange night dream. In that dream, she saw her dear mother come from the otherworld, sit at the foot of her bed and say, “My dear child, Orysya, I’m pleading with Our Merciful Lord all the time to send you a good husband, and I’m sure your maidenhood will very soon come to an end…”
The next morning the recollection of the dream did not make her either somber or gleeful. She went to her father’s chambers and, blushing like a red flower, she said, “My dear father, I’d like to go with girls2 to the River Trubaylo near Turova Krucha Hill where the water, bubbling over the stones, is clear as crystal. The girls have already collected things that have to be laundered. Please have horses harnessed to the wagon so that we could go in it.”
And her father inquired, “Why would you want to go so far?”
Replied the girl, “Is it, my dear father, really that far away? Hardly a half hour ride in a wagon. Besides the road there runs through fields and meadows and before long you find yourself so close to the foot of that hill that you can hear that creek burbling.”
To this Orysya’s father observed, “Yes, I know only too well that if you want something badly you know how to talk me into giving it to you. Find old Hryva and tell him I want to see him.”
Orysya rushed out of the room. It did not take her long to find Hryva, and she herself brought him to her father.
Hryva was old, really ancient. He had known Orysya, his master’s daughter, since she was an infant. When she was an infant, he used to hold her in his arms, lulling her to sleep, and when she grew up, he taught her to ride horses. He had been at his master’s side during the Cossack campaigns in Poland and in the Crimea, he had sailed in Cossack boats across the Black Sea. If his master had offered Hryva to release him so that he would become a free man, Hryva would have turned the offer down — he wanted to stay at his master’s side until death. Grizzled and hoary was the aged Hryva, his beetle brows almost covered his eyes, and his beard went down to his belt.
Entering his master’s chambers, Hryva bowed and said, “Good day to you, my good man.”
And the sotnyk returned the greeting, “May you be healthy, my good fellow!” “My good man, or fellow” was how they addressed each other.
“Now, my good man, harness a pair of good horses to that wagon in which we used to carry bread during our campaigns, and take Orysya and the girls to Turova Krucha Hill.”
“Yes, sir, it will be done, as you say, my good man.”
And he went out, called two servants to help him and they rolled out of the barn the long and wide wagon he knew so well. Oh, that wagon, a witness of many glorious and tragic events! It saw fierce clashes with the Poles and the Tartars, it saw bold attacks and hasty retreats, when Cossacks, caught in an ambush, had to run hell for leather over bumpy field or swampy bog, holding on to the sides of that wagon for dear life.
But now the wagon was needed for a very peaceful service. Two horses in which the age had already extinguished the fire that used to burn in their hearts, glow in their eyes and gush out from their nostrils, were chosen. These horses would not prance, rear or gallop wildly, scaring timid women and children but exciting dauntless Cossacks. Placid were these two white horses, obediently they let themselves be harnessed by the strong hands of the hoary Hryva who, though long in the tooth, retained a good memory of the old Cossack days.
Orysya’s maids piled the wagon high with the laundry, and then climbed in themselves, all of them wearing flower wreaths and earrings. Orysya was perched among them like a proud rose among field flowers.
The hoary Hryva installed himself in the driver’s seat, the servants rushed to open the gate. The sotnyk looked out the window and called out to Orysya,
“Don’t stay too long there, Orysya!”
And she called back, “Don’t worry, dear father, I won’t!”
The driver cracked the whip, the horses neighed and, smelling the scents of the fields, went into a trot, and soon the wagon and the girls were out of sight of those who watched their departure.
They were moving across the vernal fields. The grass was young and bright green. The expanse of the green fields matched the expanse of the blue sky above. The wagon, adorned with girls, was rolling across the green tract as the sun rolls across the azure.
Soon they began to hear the distant rumble of the waters of the Trubaylo, and presently, through the trees on the bank the bright reflections of the sun could be seen sparkling on the water. The water was like sheets of transparent glass that fell and broke against the rocks in myriads of slivers.
Close to the river there rose a high wooded hill. The roots of the trees that stood closest to the rushing water hang over the stream. Ivies clung to the trunks and roots, mosses and lichens hung from them in festoons above the rushing water.
Looking at the hill, the trees and the water, the girls wondered and asked the hoary Hryva why the hill is called “Turov” (literally –“of tury”).
“Why would you want to know?” rejoined Hryva.
“If you know, we should know it too! Tell us!”
“I would tell you, my doves, but I’m afraid you will not want to come here again when you hear the story.”
“Oh, please do tell us, good old man!”
And the girls kept begging him until the old man yielded to their entreaties and perching on a rock on the bank, began his story,
“In the times of old, even before the Mongols brought ruin, there lived a prince who ruled in the town of Pereyaslav. This prince was a great lover of hunting — no sooner he saw any game, he would nock an arrow on his bow and take aim. Once, during a hunt, he left his men behind and lost his way in the forest. He went this way and that way, and suddenly saw a herd of tury…”
“He saw what, grandpa?” Orysya interrupted Hryva.
“Tury, my little one, were huge aurochs with golden horns — you won’t see them anywhere anymore. The prince stood riveted to the spot — but not so much because he was frightened by unexpectedly coming upon the golden-horned aurochs but because he saw a girl among them, a girl of such a glowing beauty that the forest was lit up. The prince began to walk towards the girl but her beauty was so dazzling that he stopped in his tracks. The prince instantly became so enamored of this girl that he could not think of anything else but her — he forgot where he was or where his men were. ‘Oh maiden,’ said the prince, ‘be my wife!’ Rejoined the girl, ‘I will marry you when the River Trubaylo will reverse its flow.’ ‘But that will never happen! If you turn down my proposal, I’ll shoot all your tury!’ ‘If you kill my aurochs, you will never again find your way back home!’
The prince flew into a rage and began shooting his arrows at the golden-horned aurochs. The beasts stampeded and in their blind rush they knocked down trees. The prince ran after them, shooting one arrow after another. The aurochs, pursued by the incensed hunter, ran downhill towards the river and then jumped from the high bank into the water. The Trubaylo in those times was much wider than it is today, but the aurochs laid themselves down on the bottom of it across the whole width of the stream like huge boulders. The girl threw up her hands in dismay and exclaimed, ‘Because of you, all my tury have been drowned — for this evil deed you are cursed to wander forever in the woods never finding your way back home!’ So, they say, this prince has been wandering ever since in the woods, never finding his way back to Pereyaslav…
So many things have happened since those times…Pereyaslav was for some time in the hands of the Tartars and then in the hands of the Poles — oh, yes, a lot had occurred in Pereyaslav while the prince was away…and he has never found his way back to it again… And those golden-horned uruses are still lying on the bottom of the river, and the rapids above them rumble — but listen carefully, it’s not the water rumbling, it’s the aurochs roar from the bottom of the river! They say the prince will come back one day and will call out to the tury under the water, and they will rise and will follow him in search of the places in our Ukraine where they will be able to roam freely…”
The girls were all ears, listening to the old man’s story. Orysya would not even look at the rocks that stretched across the river, thinking they were the backs of the aurochs, and the rumble of the rapids was the roar of the tury….
The girls looked disconcerted by the tale that Hryva had narrated. They were not even sure whether they should stay and go ahead with their laundry, or whether they should return home. If not for the hoary Hryva’s smirk that played on his face, they would have opted for going back home!
They used to like to launder things right at the place where the water was the fastest among the rocks, but now they stopped where the stream was flowing quietly, the surface of the water was smooth, reflecting the world like a mirror — the steep bank, twisted roots, ivies and the huge elms which stretched their boughs like arms above the river.
Orysya stared into this watery mirror and seemed to see a red spot moving out of the thicket to the bank — it appeared that there was someone riding a gray horse among the elms. She wanted to turn and take a better look but she was even afraid to raise her eyes and look at the rocks which, it seemed to her, would any moment now break the spell and rise out of the water. Orysya silently pulled one of the girls nearest to her by the sleeve and pointed at the reflection in the water. And lo and behold — there was indeed, reflected in the water, on the high bank, the prince, richly dressed in red, on a gray horse, his belt like shining gold. No doubt it was the prince! Who else could it be attired so splendidly? The girls were dazed and confused.
The man on the horse also seemed irresolute. He stopped looking down the steep bank, at the water rushing among the rocks, and at an old, long-bearded man sitting at one of the rocks by the water edge. He also saw a bevy of girls with sheets and spreads and nightshirts in their hands. Were they mermaids who had come out of their crystal palaces in the underwater kingdom? And was that old man their king who wanted to have his old bones warmed up a little by the sun?
The man kept staring at the girls, at their white legs which could be glimpsed below the hems of their embroidered dresses which they had lifted up a little not to get them wet, at the arms, bared by the rolled up sleeves. The reflections of the girls’ graceful legs shone like sparkles of precious stones.
The man was shaken out of his reverie by the crackling voice of the hoary Hryva,
“Hey, Cossack over there, you want to have your nice expensive coat washed in the river?”
The old man’s voice broke the spell and the girls began doing their laundry in earnest.
The rider addressed himself to the hoary Hryva,
“Can you, please, tell me, grandpa how I can get to Viytovka?”
“And what do you want in Viytovka?”
“It’s not Viytovka itself that I need — I know that on my way to my destination I have to pass through it.”
“And what is your destination?”
“My destination is where I find my destiny. I hope to see a dove that will take me to my love.”
“Aha, I see. So may God send you this dove!”
And the old man explained where the rider could find a ford across the river — “a wagon would not cross there, but a good rider will,” and then which path he should follow to get straight to Viytovka.
The stranger thanked the old man and rode on. The moment he was out of sight, the girls began to describe to each other the stranger’s eyes, his brows, his smile and his general mien and demeanor, adding in jest, “He is your intended!” “No, not mine, yours!”
Then one of the girls said soberly, “Don’t be silly, girls, didn’t you see how he was dressed? He is not for the likes of us — if anything, he’s Orysya’s intended!”
Orysya flushed deeply and cried out, “You must be out of your mind, Paraska! Didn’t you hear what he said to Hryva?”
And yet, she felt sorry it was not her that he was looking for. The girl’s heart is like candle wax, and the eyes of a gallant Cossack are like the rays of the hot sun that make that wax so soft…
“How do you know it’s not to you that the dove he is waiting for will take him? You can’t escape your destiny!”
The washing done, the girls put the laundry into the wagon and covered it with fragrant herbs, climbed in themselves and went back home, chattering gaily like carefree birds. Their approach was heard at the sotnyk’s household before the wagon was actually seen.
When the gate was swung open and the wagon rolled into the yard, the girls exclaimed in chorus, “Look, Orysya, look at that gray horse! Isn’t it the horse of that Cossack that we have seen on the bank of the river? He is your intended!”
Orysya saw the horse and felt as though something exploded in her heart. She could not say whether she was overjoyed or alarmed and disturbed.
At that moment, the Cossack looked out the window and saw a wagon which was being slowly pulled by old horses, roll into the yard; in the driver’s seat there sat an old driver; the wagon’s load was covered with herbs, and on top of the herbs, behind the long-bearded Hryva there sat girls in flowers and colorful necklaces. To spot them behind the hoary driver was like seeing the sun come out from behind the dark cloud. And espying Orysya among the girls, the man blurted out, “That’s the one, that’s the girl I’ve been looking for!”
And he turned to the sotnyk and began telling him earnestly and honestly who he was and what he had come for. He was from a noble family, an otaman3 from Myrhorod. He had come to take a look at the sotnyk’s daughter whose beauty made her famous all over Ukraine. Now that he had seen her and ascertained that what was said of her was surely true, he would like to ask whether she had her trousseau ready.
The sotnyk thought it was a heaven-sent Cossack who was worthy of marrying his daughter. She was sent for. When Orysya walked in, her face was as red as guilder-rose berries.
“Meet your intended, Orysya!” exclaimed the sotnyk. “Take a good look at him! Will you accept him, or will you still wait for a better one?”
But Orysya, her eyes and head lowered, stood motionless and silent. Seeing that he was not likely to get a straight answer form his daughter and knowing that she would let her wish known only by her gaze and not by words, the sotnyk took it upon himself to announce her decision, “No one can fail to be fond of such a fine Cossack! Embrace and exchange kisses! I bless you and may God bless you too!
The Cossack embraced Orysya and lightly kissed her lips which tasted like honey. Then both of them bowed low before the sotnyk.
I saw Orysya shortly before the wedding — she was like a blooming flower. It is not for me to tell here how many guests attended her wedding party, how rich was the feast or how long it lasted — but I saw Orysya again more than a year later in Myrhorod. In marriage, she began to look even more beautiful than before, and her child was like a star in the sky. Looking at her, I could not help thinking, “This young woman is a glory of God’s creation! How I wish there were an artist gifted enough to do justice, in his painting, to her beauty and to the charm of her blessed child… What a great picture it would have been!”
sotnyk — a commander of a unit of Cossack troops
girls — apparently, servants and surfs of the household
A letter from P. Kulish to his wife of August 20 1856 with a copy of an illustration made by S. de Balmen for “Orysya”.
An illustration for “Orysya”
by S. de Balmen in the St Petersburg edition of “Orysya.”
by Panteleymon KULISH
Written in September 1844,
after reading a canto from the Odyssey[Prev][Contents][Next]