This is an old text i wrote back in 2008. I still like the concept of the story, and I’m happy to see that my grammar wasn’t completely off even back then. But if I were to rewrite it today, I would make a lot of changes. I’d definitely make it shorter, and less pompous. I’d love to hear your opinion – is the story worth rewriting?
There are and always will be soul collectors in this world.
A long time ago, in the years when your great-grandmother was young, there lived in a small village near the great forest a young man with his mind full of dreams. In the year of this story’s place taking, the summer was as warm, green and beautiful as a summer could ever be dreamt to be, and the village enjoyed itself accordingly. Festivities were being held almost once a week at the dancing place in the middle of the forest, where the swirling river met the lake.
The joyful mood inspired this specific young man – a violin player – to propose to the object of his lifelong affection. The girl accepted gladly, and for many weeks they met and danced together at the gatherings in the forest.
Tradition had it that a couple may not undertake the wandering to these gatherings together until they were wedded, and thus this young man walked alone or together with his friends to the festivities each week, to meet his future bride at the scene of the dancing. The young two were very happy and everyone looked forward to the upcoming wedding.
But fate wanted it otherwise. One evening, when the air was even more pleasantly warm than usual and the birds sang clearer than ever in the trees, the young man happened to walk on his own to the gathering. He was late and all his friends had gone before him. When he got to the part of the road where the forest trail crossed a whirling stream by means of a wooden bridge, he suddenly though he heard singing from the water.
Confused, he leaned against the rail to gaze down into the foamy depths, and was amazed to find the most beautiful creature he ever saw gazing back at him. Large black eyes framed by flowing hair the color of water, she had the body of a fragile water lily but radiated with an inner strength that seemed to contain the ferocity of the ocean itself. The river ghost rose from her flowing containment and placed herself upon a rock in the stream, where from she sang to him.
His friends came back to look for him when dark crept up from the hills and the shadows cast by the trees began to fade into the surrounding gloom. Lanterns were carried along the path, and they were greatly relieved to find him uninjured on the wooden bridge crossing the stream. He hastily lowered his violin, strings still reverberating from previously played notes, and looked to the ground, a strange sort of shame suddenly making him want to flee.
They did not notice this, however, and laughingly scorned him for his lazy nature and heartily prodded him along back to the dancing. He followed without a word, and when he cast one last, longing glimpse over his shoulder upon stepping off the wooden bridge, the gentle river ghost of a woman was gone.
He left his heart in the stream that night, however.
His friends noticed that something was amiss with their companion – or maybe “amiss” is not the right word for it; he seemed suddenly more colorful, more joyful and more keen to practice his music whenever there was time for it. And none of these changes would have been interpreted as negative, had they been described to an outsider. But his closest ones wondered.
He had never been one to show his emotions very openly, and even the promise of a coming wedding between himself and the girl he had coveted for as long as he could remember had not sent him flying high like this. They settled, though, for the conclusion that this sudden joyousness was due to a delayed insight about what was to come.
The young man himself did not tell anyone about his nightly encounter – or encounters maybe is a better word, since this was not the last time he met with the watery phantom by the river stream. In fact, he tended to walk alone to the dancing quite frequently after that first evening, and it was not rare for him to be absent from these gatherings altogether thenceforth.
His bride-to-be was a little worried at this, but his friends calmed her by saying that he had much to think about and tend to before the wedding. And although they themselves did not fully believe this explanation, she left it at that and continued with her own eager preparations as tradition saw suitable and without further inquiry.
And so the nights, weeks and months went by quietly in the little village. When the people heard soft violin tunes coming from the forest, they simply took it as the highly fitting and not at all unusual wanderings and contemplations of a young man soon to give up his naïve life in boyish freedom for something new and much bigger. In reality, he was not playing for himself at all.
The river ghost was faithful to him and waited for him in silence on the rock in the water whenever he chose to show up – but always in moonlight. It was as if her voice would not carry in the cruel heat of the daylight sun, and since she appeared to be half siren, half serenade, she could not take form where her singing would not be heard. Every time he came, he played his violin and she sang with it.
No thought of his did go to the poor girl who awaited their forthcoming wedding with anticipation, as all his mind was on the music he and the water made together. The others stopped expecting him at the dances after a while, but this did not bother him at all. He came up with new tunes – they heard it – and he slept with a new kind of peace at night. But always after returning from the forest stream.
One thing troubled his mind though, namely the nature of the watery romance. Their music was beautiful, but he realized pretty soon that she could not leave the water and come to him. He tried once, twice, even thrice to wade out into the river to her – but as soon as the ripples from his movements reached the hem of her whirling silver gown, she would fade from his grasping fingers as soon as a bubble bursts on a foamy surface. This was his only sorrow during this brief time of otherwise unbroken ignorant bliss.
The wedding was nigh. On the evening of fate he wore the attire of ceremony his father had worn before him, but walking towards the ground of feast – the same as where the dances had been held all summer – he discovered the rings had been forgotten and was forced to turn back. The congregation moved along as he ran as fast as he could back to the village.
Seeing his bride dressed up in her ceremonial dress had caused him to wake from his delusions of a watery romance. Knowing that the life he would have with this girl would be possible in all the ways his brief river crush had not been, he had decided to go forth with the proceedings. This insight had reached him only the night before.
The rings in hand he did not know why he also brought his violin on a whim, but legend has it that evil fate was in the air that evening, intervening. Or maybe it was the work of forces beyond understanding.
In any case the village was understandably empty and quiet when he ran back towards the forest trail, noises being heard only from far away in the woods where the preparations were hurriedly being finished. He reached the trail and had to slow down a bit, lest he trip on any of the roots and twigs scattered everywhere on the path and get dirt all over his fine clothes.
Had he kept on running, he might have missed and passed by the little man sitting on a stub right before the bend in the road that would take him to the bridge over the stream, but he did not. And as he did not miss him, and as he, in spite of everything else, was a polite and mannerly young man, he stopped, surprised, and asked the man if he needed any help.
The young man might have still made it to the ceremony, had he been of a more suspicious nature – but he was not. And thus he did not up and run when he got an evil grin for an answer, or even when the man made his offer. He said he knew about the affection the young man held for the siren of the woods, and about the dilemma they suffered. He had the solution. He had the spell.
Should the boy accept he would, at a small cost, be able to be together with his singing shade for all time, hearing her sing and play to her every night henceforth. Time would never separate them and neither would daylight, since he would be given the ears to hear her and the eyes to see her even when day was upon the world like a ravenous fever.
Should he reject, he would be free to continue on his way and proceed with the imminent ceremony, never laying his mind upon the matter again. But he had to remember this was a one time offer. It would never be made again.
For all he knew a full year passed between them as he stood there, unable to think coherently. Then he reached forth his hand and offered it to the stranger, who smilingly accepted it in not quite a shake but a firm, long hold. Music started somewhere further down the path – the dancing had begun. But if he, somewhere in his distraught mind, still cared about that, or about the young woman who laughingly spun around in her last dance of freedom in the glade beyond the stream right then, he did not know it himself.
For at that moment, all his thoughts were fixed on the river ghost that he had all but forgotten about only minutes before. And the world spun deliriously around him as he apprehended the wonder of the situation. He would have her, he would be with her, he would play for her and hear her sing. He would never have to forget about her again. Ever.
The stranger was gone. Had he even been there? Who had? Why was he standing in the middle of the road with his violin and bow uncased?
There was music down the path, somewhere in the deep forest. Why? But it was merry, and seemed to accompany in major the beautiful minor key melody that flowed towards him from the stream further on. It was a woman’s singing. Or the ghost of a woman.
He walked down the path like a man in a dream, and did not notice he had brought the violin to his shoulder until the smooth surface of the ebony chin rest touched his skin. And he didn’t know there was such music in his mind until his fingers picked it out in harmony with the heavenly song in his ears. And then he reached the stream.
She was all the wonder he knew she would be, and somehow he could see that more clearly tonight. She was more than a specter now, more substantial. Where the moonlight touched her it did not shine through, but rather illuminated her. He lowered his pace and approached her slowly. And this is where all the love stories would have you listen to endless descriptions of the light in their eyes, the smell of the air, the sound of the night around them.
This one will not.
She beckoned him forward and he started to descend the slope down to the whirling water – all the while playing his salute to her in fast, almost madly swirling notes. He reached the span of the small bridge and got ready to enter the cold water. But one more step, and he began to feel a resistance. Moving got harder with each inch he closed in on her, and he ended up sinking down on an old stump standing beside him. Walking had gotten too hard.
He felt dizzy and blamed it on the heat of the past day, but he never ceased playing. And she kept singing, even though her voice had taken on a worried shade.
Then his arms began to feel heavy. He let them drop, and the music stopped. He let the violin rest on his knee, and thought he needed to sleep for a minute or two. Just for a short while. But then he saw the expression on her face, a look of pure terror he had not thought a phantom could express.
She reached out for him with an all too solid hand, and when he held out his own hand he gasped in surprise and horror, for now he understood why he could see her. He also understood why he could not move anymore, and what the strange man – he remembered him now – had meant with ‘a small price’.
His hand and arm was draped in vines and so, he saw when he with difficulty turned his head, was the rest of him. Of his legs there was nothing left but a strangely sculpted extension of the stump he was sitting on, and he could feel the cold creeping up his torso where this woody infection was spreading. He tried to scream; out came an inarticulate grunt. He wanted to thrash and turn, but his whole body was turning into wood.
He turned his gaze back to her, and saw that her face had settled into an expression of solemn sorrow. He saw now that she could not leave the rock in the stream any more than he could move from the wooden stub. They were both specters now. And she started singing again – a sad, dark song of drowning slowly.
She reached for him, and he reached for her. But they both knew that they would never touch, never reach quite far enough. He stopped breathing – there was no need to anymore.
His arm stiffened that way, and he never moved again. But in his mind he lifted his violin to his shoulder and played for her again, and she sang. And they have been silently playing and singing ever since.
What happened to the wedding party is not for this story to tell – maybe its tale was never told – but when the guests and villagers came walking back the path hours later, they never found him. They didn’t even notice the wooden statue until days later, and no one associated it with the lost boy. Except maybe his now lonely bride-to-be, who was found on several occasions afterwards sitting by the stream, leaned towards that strange statue, seemingly listening to some inaudible music. But she could never explain it, and as the years passed she forgot and moved on.
But if you happen to pass by that stream near the village in the forest – it may well have turned into a full scale city by now, for all I know – pause for a moment and listen. It might be that you hear faint tunes from the whirling water, and you’ll know that it is their song. He will never lift his violin from his knee again in human sight, but he will forever play to her all the same. And she will sing to him, invisible in daylight, from her rock in the middle of the stream.
Lost boy and River Ghost, together and still not, forever.
And the strange man added one more soul to his collection.