A parable by Louis Couperus (1863-1923), translated from Dutch by Chaitali Sengupta
The forest was somber, and the air dark; it was a long night without the solace of the stars, it seemed to sink into infinity, sink deep into all that was mortal in this world. It was at a time like this when the young boy woke.
He was a boy of some years, and he did not remember anymore, whether he was lost or abandoned in that forest, because he had slept for such a stretching length of time. Shuddering, his eyes large and full of fear, he looked around himself. But the way forward was lost behind him.
“Where am I,” the little boy thought, in that soul-shattering darkness. “And who am I and where am I to go…”
A vague remembrance stole upon him, a memory of shimmering light and warmth. Like a weeping, wafting out of the warm sun palace. But more than the weeping, he remembered nothing much. Now, fully awake, he became aware of being alone, abandoned, lost in a forest of horror.
The very thought made the little boy cry out in childish despair. The fear of beasts and that of robbers assailed him. Then, he saw a silvery twilight moving across towards him, in silence. Was it the wild man, he wondered? In his deep consciousness, the thought rose death-like. His little heart throbbed wildly in his throat and his small eyes bulged out in terror.
Soon, he realized the beaming twilight, that glided on his way, was not the wild man; it was a white woman.
The little boy, in the twinkling of an eye, thought he recognized her: a woman, very white, the kind of white woman he liked. With mingled fear and expectation, the little boy ran up to her.
“White lady!” he begged, folding his hands in a gesture of prayer that perhaps he had been taught in the sun palace, many, many years ago.
Tall and slender, the white woman’s veils were the whitest white, flashing against the gloomy, dark depths of the forest. She bent over the child, and her gaze caught him through her veils; her white hands were briefly extended, as if she wanted to see better; better, with her deep dark eyes, as deep as the black, shadowy forest.
“White lady!”, the child pleaded again.
“Who are you, my child?” asked the white woman. Her voice sounded primeval, thick and dark. “And where have you come from and where are you going?”
The small boy began to cry again; the woman’s voice frightened him, and he did not know who he was, where he had come from, or even where he was going…
“Come with me then”, said the white woman gravely, and she stretched out her hand to him. The little boy held out his hand to her too, and went beside her, with weeping eyes.
“Don’t cry anymore,” said the white lady. “Hold my hand safely, let me lead you: do not be afraid. In this forest, there are no beasts or robbers.”
The child felt a gentle trust wash over him, especially now that the cold hands of the white lady were warmed by his own small, warm one, but he still stumbled very often, and his short legs grew tired soon.
“Then, let me carry you, my dear.” Saying so, she lifted the child to her breast and held him very lightly between her white veils: her footfalls were light, floating, like unheard-of steps. In her arms, the child fell asleep and dreamed of the sunshine and white women, and also of white children. She walked on.
When he awoke, the child smiled and peered into the dark depths of her eyes.
“You are a good white lady, aren’t you?” asked the child, as confidence sparkled in him. He wrapped his little arms around her neck.
“Yes,” said the white woman. “I am a good white lady, my child.”
“Are you not tired of carrying me, good white lady?”
“No, my child, I am not tired. I never rest, I always go.”
“Through the whole forest?”
“Through the whole forest. See, the morning breaks magnificently, through the branches, and the way ahead seems clearly visible.”
“Now I can walk again, white lady.”
The white lady put him down, carefully on his feet, and wrapped herself closer in her veils. The child walked on beside her, happy now that all the mystery of the night had been resolved in the smile of the morning.
“Oh!” cried the child; “See what a beautiful flower that is!”
“And there, what a beautiful butterfly!”
“Oh!” said the child joyfully. “I would like to have them, the butterfly and the flower.”
“I shall give you the butterfly and the flower,” said the white lady; “but then, you must also give me something in return.”
“And what can I give you, white lady?”
“In lieu of the butterfly and the flower, my child, you must give me this morning hour.”
“Oh, beautiful is the flower, and beautiful is the butterfly: oh, white lady, I gladly give you this morning hour, in return!”
The white lady smiled. With a mysterious, dark look she looked at the child.
Then she caught the butterfly in her veil and bent over the precipice to pluck the blue flower. She offered both to the child, who rejoiced with happiness.
“O white lady, O white lady,” the happy child spoke out in joy. “How happy I am with my flower and my butterfly!”
But in his joy, the boy squeezed the butterfly to death and the flower withered in his little hand. “Oh, but how soon, O white lady, is my flower wilted and my butterfly died!”
“But dear child, butterflies do not live long, especially not in the hands of children, and flowers wither even faster. But if you give me this new day of spring, I will bring up thousands of butterflies and thousands of flowers, by magic, all along your path today.”
“A thousand of butterflies and flowers! Oh, white lady, for so many flowers and butterflies, I will gladly give you my day in spring.”
Now the glowing sun had completely burst forth, and the forest no longer wore a black garment; it sparkled with golden-green spring. And along the shining road, the child walked in springtime, and picked the blooming flowers and caught the colorful butterflies, for they bloomed and fluttered all along the road.
But by evening, the flowers had wilted, and all the butterflies were dead.
“Still, it was a lovely spring day,” said the cheerful child, now with sleepy eyes. Exhausted, he wrapped his arms around the white lady and slept on her heart, between her ephemeral white veils.
Night fell, the white lady walked on, and in the depths of her shadowy eyes, a peal of wistful laughter broke quietly. “But that glorious spring day is now mine!” murmured she, in a nameless, deep, dark voice.
The white lady took the little boy to the city, among other people and children. The child grew up there. He became big and strong among those he assumed were his parents, his brothers, and sisters, relatives, and friends.
Many seasons later, the white lady appeared to him again. The white lady of his yesteryears, the one whom he had forgotten completely. Now, her deep dark eyes frightened him, even though he was now a young man of eighteen.
“My son,” the white lady called him. “I have not forgotten you.”
“I was ungrateful, white lady,” confessed the young man. “You saved me, a lost and forsaken child, from the gloomy forest of night And, you gave me butterflies and flowers.”
“Yes, thousands of butterflies… in exchange for one spring day!”
“Yes… thousands… for one day in spring. You brought me to the city, and I found my parents.”
“And they fed you and cared for you until you became a man, my son, a young man of eighteen. But don’t you remember, the promise? What returns would you give me now?”
“Oh, yes, white lady, I remember very well. A spring day in exchange for the butterflies and flowers. I also remember the eighteen spring seasons of my life, which you demanded to bring me into the city where I could be with my parents, and they would raise me with my brothers and sisters, and with my relatives and friends.”
“If you still remember that promise, my son, the white lady is now content… And she’s happy. In exchange of just eighteen, withering spring seasons, you have received youth and a youthful time of pure happiness.”
“But now, white lady, my happiness is over, and I am bitter with grief,” cried the young man. “For I love a girl as beautiful and as soulful as no other girl in the world, and I should like to call her my wife. But alas! She does not love me. I have but little possessions and one among them is my anguish, that I cry out on my violin.”
“My son, you know how much I love you. If you can give me, no more than twenty blooming summers of your life, I will gladly give you happiness, a consort, and money. Twenty blooming summers, in exchange for the bride, and the gold that will make you great among men. Do not lament in music anymore; music must fill the void and is more transient and rarer than what I’ve asked of you…. Your spring days and summer months…”
“But music has comforted me, white lady.”
“Yes, live happily then, my son,” said she. “Be happy with what I give you, with your bride and the money…”
“Oh, white lady, oh white lady, for so much I’d willingly give all my blooming summers to you!”
The white lady looked with deep dark eyes at the young man, and she did not come back in years.
The young man married the lady of his dreams, the one whom he desired much, and as the years slowly turned, he attained prestige, wealth and power, until the war erupted. Then, the country was in turmoil, and the smoke of crumbling, burning cities darkened the sky and the horizon.
The white woman appeared to her foster son for the third time. She looked terrible to him. Her face was lean and sunken, her arms bony and her outstretched hand, threatening.
“O white lady, O white lady,” exclaimed the man, full of passion. Worries had already wrinkled his face; pride was scorching his soul. “Years ago, you offered me happiness in exchange for twenty summers of my life. But I never found happiness… Like the flower and the butterfly, my love died and wilted, and my wealth never brought any joy. Now I only wish to be very powerful, for if I attain supremacy, that must surely bring happiness. I wish for a crown that would sit on my temple.”
“Foster son,” said the white lady, “my dear child, I never forgot you: if you will give me in exchange for the crown of this land, fifty purple autumn seasons of your life, I will cause a happy outcome in the war; it would make you the king of this land.”
The ambitious man hastily accepted the exchange, and a terrible battle raged for seven days. The battlefields were strewn with corpses: death seemed to reign supreme. The foster son of the white lady took a sword in his hand, fought fiercely in the front lines, and a mysterious power seemed to protect him and make him invincible in the heat of the war. He, at the head of the troops of the country, gained the victory, and they pressed the crown on his head.
He grew old under the weight of that crown, until war raged again, and rebellion broke out. Deserted by all his people, he fled the land half-naked, feeling miserable. He reached the same gloomy forest, collapsed there, where he had been once found as an abandoned boy by the white lady.
Old and dejected, he lay down in the twilight of the sinking evening, when she appeared before him, looking like a terror: gray hair fanned out around her face, which grinned like a skull; and now, she had hollow eyes.
“O white lady, O white lady,” cried the unhappy king. “You thought to gift happiness to me with this crown. You turned the war in my favor, in exchange for fifty purple autumn seasons of my life. But this crown has only brought me trouble, nothing else. I’ve never known happiness, except perhaps for that very first day of spring, when you conjured up butterflies and flowers for me! And yet I considered you to be my life! Why have you been so cruel? O white woman, O white lady! Now that I lie here, feeling miserable, abandoned, I beg of you. You who are so powerful, please bring a glimpse of happiness and life, to my poor suffering subjects, to my children… in whichever form it may be, flower, butterfly, bride, gold, or crown…”
“O my son, O my son!” raved the white lady. “You’ve always been ungrateful. You’ve cared neither for the flower, nor for the butterfly, nor bride or wealth, not even for the crown. But if you give me this last icy winter hour, well then, I’ll grant your children and your subjects life, and a glimpse of happiness.”
Helping him stand up, she led him on. Sobbing now, he entrusted his last winter hour to her. And she led him to a monument, whose bronze door she opened out for him.
“Get in there,” she said threateningly now. “So that I may receive everything: all the days of spring, summer and autumn, and also the last hour of winter: all that you have promised me, in exchange for my countless favors.”
The old king stumbled and staggered.
“But… but… this is a tomb!” he said, looking at the monument.
“This is a king’s tomb,” she corrected him. “Tomorrow your praise singers, O son, will engrave upon it, the words of glory, glorifying you for eternity. Get in there now, so that I may receive what you owe me.”
And she held open the bronze doors for him.
“Were you not my life then?” asked the King, on the threshold of the sepulcher. “Oh, tell me… Aren’t you, my life?
“No,” said the white lady gloomily. “I was never your life. I am not Life. I am Death.”
And she pointed him to go inside.
He obeyed; slowly, she turned the bronze door, which creaked in heavy hinges.
“And my life?” asked the old king in a begging voice, anxious, as he peered through the still open crack of the slowly closing tomb door.
The white lady said more softly, “You’ll get your life, but only when you have paid me your debt of the days and the seasons…
Then she closed the door, for thousands of years.
Louis Couperus (1863-1923) is one of the foremost figures in Dutch literature. His oeuvre contains a wide variety of genres, including lyrics, poetry, short stories, fairy tales and historical novels. Over Lichtende Drempels (About luminous thresholds) is a collection of four fairy tales and an accompanying story by Couperus. Published in November 1902 by LJ Peat, in Amsterdam, “Of Days and Seasons” (Van dagen en seizoenen) is a parable from this collection.
Chaitali Sengupta is a writer, translator, a language teacher, and a volunteer journalist from the Netherlands. Her first prose-poem collection Cross-stitched Words was published in February, 2021. Her published works also include two translations “Quiet whispers of our heart” and “A thousand words of heart”.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL