A short story I wrote for a contest. The condition was to tell a local legend in a new way. I didn’t win, but yet I am happy I tried 🙂
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‘Be careful,’ the man said, anxious. ‘You’ll spill it!’
‘No, I won’t,’ said Neda.
She carefully took the precious bucket, careful not to spill even a drop of water on the warm, dry soil. She liked the feeling of dryness and warmth on her feet. For some reason, she actually enjoyed running barefoot on the hot ground, taking in the heat of the sun. It was so strong that the whole sky looked like a dizzy dream.
As she walked along the line of weary people, Neda felt their greedy eyes. Everybody was looking at her bucket of water, thinking that she would now go home and drink, cook, and drink again. She unconsciously clutched the bucket and almost stopped enjoying the warmth of the thirsty earth.
Her mother waited with her eyes round with expectation.
‘’The monster!,’ she hissed, as she took the bucket, holding it like a sacred object. ‘The demon! May he rot in hell!’
‘Stop it,’ Neda replied with the mellow voice of summer.
‘Why should I? If there was any justice in the world, the Zmey would be long gone! But there isn’t. That’s what I should have taught you. There is nothing fair about this world.’
Neda didn’t reply. She had got used to the bitterness of people, even of her mother, but she didn’t like it. She mechanically started taking out the meagre supplies for making bread as her mother carefully measured a cup of water for the dough. Neda quickly drifted from her mother’s ever so grim words to her dream.
She had been having it for some time and it was always the same. A tall man with fiery eyes was looking at her, watching her like a hawk from the molten sky. In the heat of the rainless night she knew she was asleep and yet his eyes felt real, like two pieces of ember in the blackened fireplace.
‘Draught! That’s all he can do, the demon. He cannot create, so he destroys. If I could find this Zmey, I would…’
She tried to stop listening to her mother and go back to the yellowish reality of her dream but she couldn’t. She started kneading mechanically.
The Zmey had been torturing the village for years. He had brought draught, he had drunk all the rain and he had chased away the clouds from the sky. Ever since she could remember, Neda had to walk to the village well once every four days to get the bucket of water that every house was allowed to have. Everything was rationed, not only the water. The flour, the milk, the eggs. Everybody was supposed to have their share and make do with it.
‘How did he become like that?,’ the question startled her mother.
‘They say,’ her mother began, while pushing the sticky dough mixture with her fingers, ‘that someone put a spell on him. He had been human but the spell made him a Zmey. With scales, wings, everything. Like a giant lizard.’
With big fiery eyes, Neda thought.
His eyes were smiling in a bizarre way. Warm, and yet sad, like a childhood memory.
‘You are not a lizard,’ Neda said.
He smiled again, dark and blazing at the same time.
‘No,’ he answered. ‘But I could be. I could be a lizard, a fish, a lightning. I can even disappear in the whisper of the wind and yet be me.’
‘It’s just the way it is. The way I am.’
The forest was quiet. The wind was caressing the treetops very high above Neda’s head, so high that the sound of the leaves was quiet, like the buzz of a tiny bug in your sleeve. For a moment, she wondered how she got here from her dream. From her house, from the little empty kitchen. Then she forgot her question as the wind danced again, this time sliding lower, next to her feet. In a split second, she thought she saw a fiery lightning, although the weather was clear.
The Zmey was sitting on a tree trunk in front of her. He looked like a man again, only now she noticed the wings under his armpits. Were they there before? In her dream? Or, maybe, this was also a dream?
‘Why do you do this?,’ she asked with a shaky voice.
‘The draught, the thirst, the heat. You are torturing our village for no reason.’
The Zmey sighed, and his wings seemed to shudder.
‘Years ago, I was the guardian of the village. I defended it. I fought with evil beings who wanted to harm it. And people loved me. Took care of me. Gave me milk when I was wounded. Gave me bread and wine. Until…’
Neda felt the wind again and that time it was blowing through her. It was cool. She hadn’t felt cool wind for a long time.
‘People had seen me as a man. As a cloud. As a lightning. One day, however, I let them see me like a Zmey. A lizard, you would say,’ he smiled again as he said that, while Neda blushed.
‘They were repulsed. Frightened. Almost hysterical. They ran away, yelling that I was a monster. I, who had fought for them. Protected them.’
He suddenly stopped speaking, and sat there thinking with his eyebrows crossed.
‘So I decided to be what they saw me as – a monster. Instead of protecting them, I began to harm them. To bring heat, drought and fear. I thought, if I cannot be loved, then maybe I should be feared.’
‘Why is it one or the other?’
‘When you are a Zmey, you must be one or the other. You cannot be ordinary. You should either be feared or loved.
‘I am not afraid of you,’ Neda said quietly.
The woods started singing a song. It told about beginnings, endings and everything in between.
‘You are not, because you haven’t seen my horrible self. Would you like to?’
As she looked up to the yellow sky, she couldn’t remember her answer. The whole village was there, looking up, not being able to take their eyes off the giant creature that had all the oranges, and reds, and yellows in the universe. The scales were shining like tiny mirrors, glittering memories from the beginning of time, reflecting the souls of the people below. The eyes were the same fiery eyes that had haunted Neda in her dreams, and she realized she could not fear that gigantic creature hanging over the village where she had been born.
He left and people forgot about him in days. First, they talked about his frightening appearance, then they were happy because it started raining again, then they drank water, then they drank some more, then life returned to normal. And then everybody forgot.
‘We were ungrateful. He only wanted understanding. Acceptance. Maybe even affection. All he got from us was rejection. That’s why he did what he did. Because he was lonely. He just needed someone to accept him and not be frightened because of his looks.’
That was what Neda planned to tell her mother. But she didn’t manage the strength. As she was leaving her home, without telling anyone, her heart was heavy but light at the same time. She didn’t know where she would look for the Zmey. Maybe she would never find him. Maybe she will end up a stranger herself, sliding on the surface of life like a shadow without a home. She didn’t know many things but she knew one – the fear of the unknown is only as strong as the fear of getting to know it.