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Lesja Ukrainka

Encyclopedia of the life and works


Act 3

Lesja Ukrainka

Translated by Percival Cundi

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A cloudy, windy autumn night. The last pallid gleams of moonlight fade out amidst the wild confusion of the forests naked tree tops. Eerie, piercing cries of nighthawks, owls, and other nocturnal birds of prey are heard. Suddenly all these sounds are drowned out by the long-drawn mournful howling of a wolf. The howling grows louder and louder, and then suddenly breaks off. Silence follows.

A sickly, late autumn dawn soon begins to appear. The leafless trees of the forest bristle against the ashen grey sky. The white walls of Lukashs cottage begin to loom; and, leaning against one of the walls, the dark figure of someone apparently worn-out becomes visible. Although hardly recognizable, it is Mavka. She is dressed in black, with a grey opaque veil, and her only ornament is a tiny nosegay of cranberry blossom on her bosom.

As it grows lighter in the glade a large stump becomes visible on the spot where once stood the ancient oak, and close beside it there is a recently filled-in grave not yet overgrown with grass.

Out of the forest comes Forest Elf. He is wearing a grey smock and has a cap of wolfs fur on his head.

Forest Elf

(Peering at the figure leaning against the wall of the house.)

That you, my child?


(Moving slightly towards him.)

It is.

Forest Elf

And can it be

That He Who Dwells in Rock has let you go?


It was your crime that set me free to come.

Forest Elf

You call it crime, that vengeance which I took?

Twas righteous judgment I inflicted on

That sweetheart, base and treacherous, of yours!

Was it not just that he should know what tis

To feel a dread, unearthly, wild despair

In roaming through the woods in wolflike form?

Now he is nothing but a savage wolf!

Then let him whine and howl let him feel thirst

For taste of human blood twill not assuage

His torments and his pains!


Do not exult!

For Ive delivered him. Within my heart

I found the magic liberating word

Which transforms brute back into human form.

Forest Elf

(Stamping his foot with rage, he snaps his staff in two.)

Unworthy of the name of forest child!

Your soul is no more of the forest free,

But of the slavish house!


Oh, if you knew,

If you but knew how terrible it was

I slept a stonelike sleep there in the rock,

In depths profound, in blackness, damp and cold,

When lo! a dreadful echo broke clean through

The rock impregnable a long-drawn howl.

The wild despairing howl went drifting oer

The dark and lifeless waters and aroused

Vibrations long since muted in that place

And I awoke. Like subterranean fire

My ardent pity split the granite vault,

And I broke out again into the light.

The magic word gave life to my dumb lips

I wrought a miracle I only knew

I was not destined to forgetfulness.

Forest Elf

Where is he now? Why is he not with you?

Is his ingratitude eternal as

Your deathless love?


Ah, grandsire, could you but

Have seen him then! He, in his human form,

Sank down before me, like a maple felled

He, in abasement, lifted up to me

A countenance so anguished, full of pain,

And deepest penitence, and hopelessness

None but a human face can look like that!

But yet, before I found a word to speak,

He sprang convulsively up to his feet,

And, covering his face with trembling hands,

Rushed off into the bush and disappeared.

Forest Elf

What do you think of doing now, my child?


I do not know I, like a shadow, roam

About this house and have no longer strength

To leave this spot for in my heart I feel

Tis hither that he will return

After a moments silence during which Mavka resumes her position leaning against the wall.

Forest Elf

Poor child!

Why did you leave us for that land of gloom?

Could you not rest here in your native groves?

See how the willow is awaiting you;

Already, long ago, she spread your bed,

And mourns because of your long tarrying.

Go there and rest.



Ah, Grandsire, but I cant.

Forest Elf sighing deeply, betakes himself to the forest. From the forest is heard a violent stamping as though someone is ruthlessly riding a horse. It ceases.


(He comes skipping and hopping from behind the house, rubbing his hands, but stops on perceiving Mavka.)

Mavka, you here?


And you, why are you here?


I got their horse out, now Ive brought him back.

A glorious ride he gave me this last time.

No one will ever drive him any more!


O shameless one! Our forest you disgrace!

Is this how you keep faith with Uncle Lev?


Our compact of good faith died out with him.


What! Uncle Lev is dead?


There is his grave.

They buried him beneath the oak, but now

The old man needs must lie beside the stump.


So, both are gone a strong presentiment

He felt that he would not see winter through

(She approaches the grave.)

Alas! how shall my heart weep over thee,

My only human friend! If I could but

Shed living tears, I would bedew this ground

With them and bring forth myrtles ever green

Upon thy grave. But now Im destitute;

My grief has no more weight than withered leaves


Pity beseems me not, yet still I must

Confess, I feel regret for that old man,

For he knew how to live on terms with us.

With all his horses he was wont to keep

A goat so I could ride on it at night.

As lightning flies, Id ride on that black goat,

His horses meanwhile left alone in peace.

Those women dont know how to live on terms

With us at all. They sold the goat; they had

The oak chopped down; they broke good faith with us.

Well, I have paid them back! I rode to death

Their working horses; they buy more I ride.

I asked the witch who acts as midwife for

Old Nick to use her arts upon their cows,

And she did well. Oh, yes, theyll surely learn!

The Water Goblin waterlogged their ricks;

The Lost Babes dusted rust amongst their grain;

And now the Fever Wraith is thrashing them,

Because with offal they defiled the lake.

Theyll never thrive now in this forest glade,

The Starvelings round their house already lurk!


(Small wizened creatures, in rags, their faces seamed with the signs of eternal hunger, suddenly appear from around the corner of the house.)

Were here! Whos calling us!


Go, disappear!

No one was calling you!

One Starveling

The word went forth,

Cant be recalled.


(Besieging the threshold.)

Hey, open up the door,

At once, at once! Were starving, famishing!


I will not let you in!


Give us to eat!


I havent anything


The cranberries

Youre wearing on your bosom! Give us those!


But thats my blood.


No matter! We love blood.

One of them rushes at her and tears the nosegay from her breast. The others snatch at it to get a piece, fighting among themselves and yelping like dogs.


Hey, Starvelings, stop it!.. Shes not humankind!

They desist, gnashing their teeth and whimpering from hunger.


(To Kutz)

Well, you give us to eat or well eat you!

(They rush at Kutz who jumps backwards.)


Now, now, go slow!


Give us to eat! We starve!


Just wait a while; Ill wake those women up.

Youll all get food, and Ill have sport besides.

(He picks up a clod of earth and hurls it at the window, smashing in the glass.)

Voice of Mother

(From inside.)

Oy! What was that? Some evil sprites again!


(Whispering to the Starvelings.)

Now, now, you see, she is awake; and soon

Youll hear your name. But sit here still,

Or else the dame will put a curse on you

And youll sink through the ground. She knows the word.

The Starvelings crouch in a dark corner at the threshold.

From inside the house through the broken window panes are heard the movements of Mother getting up; then her voice next that of Kilina.


Its nearly broad daylight and still she sleeps.

Kilina! Hey, Kilina! Still she sleeps.

(Would that she slept for good!) Get up, get up!

(Would that she never rose!)



What now? Whats wrong!



Get up and go and milk that cow of yours,

That fine young cow, that one of Turkish breed,

Which your departed hubby got for you.


(Now fully awake)

Ill go and milk the one that I found here;

Shell give me just about three drops of milk

A pound of butter, eh?


Youd best not talk!

Who is to blame if we dont get more milk,

With such a famous dairymaid?.. Oy, woe!

A daughter-in-law like this! What have we done

To merit such bad luck?


Who was it, pray,

Sent me the invitation? What about

That slattern you had here? Why didnt you

Take her and dress her up a bit? Youd then

Have had a daughter-in-law to suit your taste.


You dont think so? But that she would have been!

That stupid Lukash gave her up for you;

And yet she was obedient, kind, and good,

No matter what you did to her You call

Her slattern, do you? and yet you yourself

Have taken that green dress of hers and made

It over and youre wearing it for shame!


Why not? Youve got to find your own clothes here!..

Here is my husband, gone off with the wind.

Were sinking into poverty the while.

Im neither wife nor widow just a waif!


Could any husband stick it out with you?

You greedy shark! What we had, youve devoured,

You and your shameless brood see, there they sit!

May famine take the lot of you some day!


Starvation take her first who speaks the curse!

At these words the door suddenly opens. The Starvelings jump up and rush into the house while Kutz flees off into the marsh.

Kilina with a pail in her hands hurries to the forest stream nearby and with a splash fills the pail with water, then returns at a somewhat slower pace. She notices Mavka, her face covered with the grey veil, who is leaning weakly against the wall near the doorway.


(Stopping and putting down the pail.)

Good Lord, whos this?.. Hey, listen, are you drunk,

Or maybe frozen stiff?

(She shakes Mavka by the shoulder.)


(With difficulty, as though struggling with an overpowering drowsiness.)

Sleep conquers me

The sleep of winter.


(Throwing back the veil and recognizing her.)

Why have you come here?

Maybe they didnt pay you for your work?


(As before.)

No one can ever pay me what is due.


For what then did you come? He isnt here.

I know, youre after him! Come now, confess;

Is he your lover still?


(Still as before.)

Once, long before

This gloomy day, there was a morning red

But now hes dead


Youve gone insane!


No, sane, and free again!

The cloud drifts slowly cross the sky,

Without a goal, to perish by and by

Where do those azure lightnings fly?


(Plucking at Mavkas sleeve.)

Be off! Dont frighten me! Why stand you here?


(Now somewhat more aware, she steps away from the door.)

I stand to watch how happy you are here.


I wish you stood amidst your charms and spells!

Mavka is suddenly transformed into a willow with withered leaves and drooping branches.


(Recovering from her stupefaction, viciously.)

Ah, twas a lucky hour when I said that!

Now you can stand and watch us all you want!..


(Running out of the house, to Kilina)

Hey, Mother! Where are you? We want to eat,

And Granny wont give us a bite!


She wont?

(Bending down and whispering to the boy.)

Behind the stove I hid a piece of pie

When Granny goes outside, you eat it up.



Who put that withered willow there? Did you?

What did you do that for?


Whats that to you?


Ill make a whistle from it.


I dont care.

The boy cuts off a twig and goes back into the house. Lukash comes out of the forest, emaciated, with long hair, ragged and without coat or cap.


(At first crying out joyfully, but immediately changing to vexation.)

So here you are! Whereve you been carrying on

For all this time?


Dont ask


I mustnt ask?

You run away, footloose, the Lord knows where!

You chase around and then you say: Dont ask!

But, dearie, I dont need to ask you where

Some place where theres a tavern, where a fool

Can swill, and gamble all his clothes away.


It was no tavern


Wholl believe it, dolt!

(Striking up a song.)

I have been forced to spend a wedded life

With this sad drunkard


Shut your mouth! Stop it!

Kilina stops, gazing at him in fright.

See here, let me ask you a question, too.

Where is my Uncles oak, where that stump stands?


(At first confused, but swiftly recovering.)

Well, what were we to do? Eat famine fare?

The merchants came, they bought, and that was all.

An oak is just a tree!


But Uncle Lev

Swore it should neer be felled.


Your Uncle Lev

Is dead and gone, so what is his oath worth?

Did either you or I swear any oath?

Id gladly sell the whole cursed forest too,

Or root it out entire. Then wed have land

Like other folk and not this bush bewitched.

When evening comes, it terrifies ones soul,

And what good do we ever win from it?

We grub here in the forest like the wolves,

And, really, soon well learn to howl like them.


Hush, hush! Dont talk like that! Shut up!

(His voice vibrates with a terrified apprehensiveness.)

You say

To sell the forest cut it down and then

It wont be like what you just said?


Said what?

That like the wolves


(Gripping her and covering her mouth with his hand.)

No, dont say it!


(Freeing herself from his grasp.)

Good God!

Youre drunk, or mad, or someones put a spell

On you! Go in the house.


All right, Ill go

Ill go at once but first Ill take a drink.

(He kneels down and drinks from the pail. He then stands up and stares moodily into space without stirring from the spot.)


What are you thinking of?


I?.. I dont know


Did someone come while I was gone?



Who would

Come here?


(Dropping his eyes.)

I know not


(With a wicked smile.)

You dont know?

But maybe I know who.


(In alarm.)

You do?


Why not?

I plainly see whom you expected here.

Tis all in vain too bad for what youd hoped!

Whateer was here, its gone into that tree


Whats that you say?


Just what you heard.


(She comes running out of the house and rushes to embrace Lukash. He receives her embrace coldly.)

My son!

My son! Oh dear! what have I suffered from

This wicked witch!



What witch?


(Pointing to Kilina.)

Why, this one here!


(With a contemptuous smile.)

So, shes the witch?.. Well now, it was your fate

To be a witchs mother-in-law for sure.

And whos to blame for it? You wanted her.


If I had known she could be such a slut,

And such a dirty idle back


(Breaking in.)

Oy, woe!

Who would have thought it! Never in the world

Was such a witch, a slattern such as she!

See what a mother, Lukash, you have got!

Shes hard as iron, she will wear you down.


And you are just as hard as she is, too.


No use expecting any help from you!

Like mother, sos the son, tis plain to see!

For what ill fortune did you bring me here?

To make a mock of me?


Why dont you, son,

Tell her to shut that mouth of hers? Am I

A skittle to be knocked about by her?


Here, both of you, give me a moments peace!

Do you want me to clear out of this house

And run away for good? By God, I will!


(To Mother.)

You see, thats what you get.


I hope you get

The same from your son too.

(Raging, she goes into the house again and on the threshold she meets Kilinas son, who is running out with a willow pipe in his hand.)

Get out, you brat!

(She slaps the boy and goes inside, slamming the door.)


Oh, Papa, youve come back!


I have, my son.

(He puts an ironical emphasis on the word son.)



Well, tell the child how he should call you then.

Its Uncle, isnt it?


(Somewhat ashamed.)

I dont care which!

Come here, come here, my child! Dont be afraid.

(He pats the boys blond head.)

So, did you make that pipe yourself?


I did.

But still I dont know how to play. Show me!

(He holds the pipe out to Lukash.)


Eh, boy, my days for playing are all past!

(He falls into a moody pensiveness.)



Ah, you dont want to show me! Mother, hey!

Why doesnt Papa want to show me how?


Who cares? A lot of good that playing does!


Here, hand the pipe to me.

(He takes it.)

A fine one, too.

You made it out of willow?


That tree there.

(He points to the willow into which Mavka has been transformed).


It seems to me I neer saw that before.

(To Kilina.)

You planted it?


Whod ever plant it there?

Some willow branch fell down and sprouted roots;

The water made it grow and all these rains



Why dont you play a bit?



Eh? Play a bit?..

(He begins to play, at first softly, then more and more loudly until he strikes into the spring song which he once played to Mavka. As he does so the words begin to come out of the pipe:)

How lovely is the strain

Of mingled joy and pain;

It cuts deep in the breast

And cleaves the heart in twain.


(Letting the pipe fall out of his hands.)

What sort of pipe is this? Black magic! Spells!

(The Boy terrified, flees into the house. Lukash seizes Kilina by the shoulder).

Speak up, you sorceress! What tree is that?


Here, take your hands off me! How should I know?

I dont associate with forest sprites,

As your folks do. Now fell it, if you want to!

No one is stopping you. Ill get the axe.

(She goes into the house and returns, bringing an axe.)


(Having taken the axe, he approaches the tree and strikes its trunk once. It shrinks and makes a murmuring with its dry leaves. He gets ready for another swing but his arms fall down powerless.)

I cannot raise my arms at all; I cant

Theres something gripping at my heart


Let me!

(She snatches the axe from Lukash and takes a violent swing at the willow.)

At that instant, like the flying tail of a meteor, Will-o-the-Wisp swoops down from the air above and embraces the tree.


I will deliver you, beloved one!

Suddenly the tree bursts into flame. Reaching the topmost branches, the fire sweeps over on to the house, setting fire to its-straw roof. The flames speedily envelop the entire dwelling. Mother and Kilinas children come rushing out with cries of Fire, fire! Save us, help! Mother and Kilina rush about, snatching up whatever they can from the conflagration. They carry out bundles and sacks on which the Starvelings are perched, after which the latter creep into the bundles and sacks and hide themselves inside. The children run with pails and vessels of all sorts, pouring water on the fire, but it rages too fiercely to be extinguished.


(To Lukash.)

Why are you standing there? Help save your goods!


(With his eyes fixed on the roof, from which innumerable flowers of flame are now bursting out.)

My goods? Maybe twill burn the evil, too?

The rooftree cracks, pillars of sparks and flame fly up high, the roof collapses and the whole house becomes a furnace. A heavy dark cloud rises in the sky and snow begins to fall. Soon nothing is visible through the heavy white blanket except the crimson glow where the fire still burns. Gradually the red glow dies down and when the snowfall slackens, a blackened spot is visible where the fire had been, still smoking and hissing from the damp snow falling. Mother and Kilinas children with the bundles and sacks are no longer to be seen. Through the snow flakes there loom indistinctly an undamaged shed, a cart, and some farm implements.


(Carrying the final bundle, she twitches Lukash by the sleeve.)

Hey, Lukash, stir yourself! Come, wake up now!

You might at least help me to carry this!


You carried all the Starvelings out with you.


Come, pinch yourself! What are you talking of?


(With a queer, quiet smile.)

Ah, wife, I see that which you cannot see

Ive learned some wisdom now



Oh, husband, how

Can you say such strange things you frighten me!


Why be afraid? A fool you never feared;

Why fear a wise man now?


Come, Lukash dear,

Lets go back to the village.


I wont go.

Ill never leave the forest. Here Ill stay.


What sort of work can you get here?


Why must

We work at all?


But still weve got to live?


And must we live?


For Gods sake, husband, have

You gone completely off your head, or what?

Maybe whats happened here has been too much.

Come to the village. I can get a dame

Whose spells will break the charm.

(She pulls at his sleeve.)


(Looking at her with a contemptuous smile.)

Whos going to stay

To keep a watch on this that still remains?

(He points to the cart and farm implements.)


(Speaking like a thrifty housewife.)

Oh, yes, thats right. Theyd all be carted off!

Just let them learn our place has been burned down,

And every living soul would soon be here!

Yes, Lukash, maybe you had best stay here.

Ill run off somewhere, borrow me a horse

For ours have all been roasted in the fire.

Well load this on the cart and then well drive

To your folks maybe they will take us in

Oy, woe! Weve got to save ourselves somehow

She is already running into the forest while speaking these last words. Lukash follows her departure with a quiet laugh when she is finally lost to view.

From the forest there approaches a tall female form wearing a robe descending to her feet and with a white headdress arranged in antique style. She walks with a hesitant motion as though swayed by the wind, stopping now and then and bending down as though searching for something on the ground. When she has drawn near, she stops beside the dewberry bushes growing close to the blackened ruins, straightens up and reveals a female face with wasted features but strongly like those of Lukash.


Who are you? What do you here?


I am your lost Destiny,

Led into a labyrinth

By unthinking villainy.

Like a shadow through this grove

Evermore I weave and rove,

Searching with sad eyes where the pathway lies

Leading to lost Paradise.

But the pathway I would trace

By the snow is drifted oer;

Now in this blank labyrinth

I am lost for evermore!..


Break off, O my Destiny,

From this dewberry a spray;

Though the snow be deep, through its thickness sweep

Till you find that little way.


Once in springtime in these groves

Here I walked and planted there

On the pathway guiding signs:

Lovely flowers, rich and rare.

But, unheeding, neath your feet

You trod down those flowers sweet.

Now beneath the snow thorns and briers grow;

Gone is every sign, I know.


Search then, O my Destiny,

With your hands beneath the snow,

If perchance a single stem

Of those flowers still doth grow.


Cold already are my hands,

And my strength is running low.

Though I weep and wail, nothing can avail.

Death approaches; I must go.

(With a groan, the Phantom moves on.)


(Stretching out his hands after the departing figure.)

Tell me, how can one live on

When ones happiness is gone?


(Pointing to the ground at his feet.)

Only like a twig thats found,

Cut off, lying on the ground!

Lukash bends down to the spot at which Destiny had pointed and finds there the willow pipe he had let fall out of his hands. He picks it up and goes across the white glade to the birch. He sits down under its long branches heavy with snow, and turns the pipe round and round in his hands, smiling at times like a child.

An ethereal, white, transparent form, with features recalling those of Mavka, appears from behind the birch and bends over Lukash.

Form of Mavka

O play, O play, give voice unto my heart!

Tis all there is that now remains of me!


Tis you? And have you as a vampire come

To suck my blood away? Come, drain it all!

(He bares his breast.)

Come, take new life from this my blood! You must,

For I have taken yours


Nay, nay, dear heart,

You gave to me a soul, as the sharp knife

Gives to the willow twig a tender voice.


Your soul from me? Your body I destroyed!

For you are but a phantom now, a shade!

(He looks at her with unexpressible pain.)


Ah, for that body do not sigh!

Tis now infused and glows with fire divine,

As clear and bright and glittering as good wine

Whose life in sparkling bubbles mounts on high.

Naught but an airy pinch of dust

Remains to mingle with the earth below.

Beside these waters shall a willow grow,

My end give life to something more robust.

And to me here shall many seek,

Both rich and poor, the joyful and the sad.

Their grieves Ill mourn, their joys shall make me glad

To every one my soul shall gently speak.

And I shall find some word for all:

The quiet murmur of my rustling leaves;

The willow pipe that tender music breathes;

The melancholy dews that from my branches fall.

Ill give them back in mystic speech

All those dear tender songs you used to sing,

The tunes you played for me in that lost spring

O play again, beloved, I beseech!

Lukash begins to play. At first his music is melancholy, like the winter wind, like a yearning for something lost and unforgettable, but soon the invincible song of love overcomes the nostalgic tones. As the music changes, so winter all around undergoes a transformation; the birches rustle their crinkly leaves, the sounds of spring are heard in the flowering groves, the dull winter day passes into a clear, moonlit, spring night. Mavka suddenly flashes out in all her former beauty with her starry crown alight. Lukash, with a cry of ecstatic joy, rushes towards her.

The wind lashes the white blossoms off the trees. The blossoms fall and fall until the pair of lovers are completely covered over, then the blossoms change into thick flakes of snow. When the snowfall ceases, the landscape is again a winter one, with snow clinging thickly on all the branches of the trees. Lukash is sitting alone, leaning against the birch, with the pipe in his hands, his eyes closed and his lips set in a happy smile. He sits motionless. The snow falls over him like a thickening robe until his form becomes indistinguishable, and keeps on falling, falling endlessly