Categories
Slices from Life

‘When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn?’

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) lamented about the futility of war, but he also imparted hope, says Ratnottama Sengupta, as she recalls her memorable meeting with folk legend Seeger, in a tete-a-tete with friends

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Last week, as people crowded the Kiev railway station to flee the Ukrainian capital, visuals started trending of the giant staircase inside the pedestrian bridge over the Yauza River to the Kiev Railway Station, the deepest station in the world. It reminded Sonia, my batchmate from Elphinstone College, of the hours she’d spent on the fabulous stairs that take you all the way down with her father who had an attack of trachycardia as they arrived in Kiev by a train from Moscow. “With great difficulty we made our way to the waiting hall from which you have to descend by this enormous staircase. I remember all the Ukrainians helped us, just as all the Russians would help us. And father kept taking Calmposes until I supported him down the stairs into a cab that took us from the station to the hotel.”

Only after that Sonia had called for an ambulance. But why not do that two hours ago? “Because father did not want me to engage with the local health authorities as we didn’t know whether they would have the drugs he used and had forgotten in India,” she explained. “And as soon as I made that call, within five minutes the ambulance was there – with that drug.” Only after that Sonia found out that Kiev has the fastest ambulance service in the world – “and the finest,” she added – “because of what they faced in WWII…” 

All through those few hours Sonia felt so supported by the local people. “I didn’t have to explain anything to the cab driver or the hotel staff – we were whisked into our room and then I went back to check in!” So today Sonia wonders how people in the bunkers are coping with small necessities such as brushing their teeth. Even as she sends Kiev her love and prayers, she feels that “peace keeping forces have to go in rather than arming Ukraine.”

“But who will stand in the line of fire?” quips Liz George, another college mate. “So, may God help the people who are facing such terrible times!” she echoes Sonia. “May god protect everyone in Kiev,” Bhamini Subramanian’s heart goes out to the innocent civilians who lost their lives and the countless families displaced, fleeing and seeking shelter to save their lives…

Watching images of the bizarre war at Kiev opens a floodgate of memories amongst us. “Yet, put aside politics and people anywhere in the world are ready to go out of their way to help people in dire situations,” Sonia sums up. And, like her, I have seen from my travels around the world that people are the same everywhere – they just want the humdrum of a normal, peaceful day to day life. But circumstances – “and policies,” Sonia adds deny a whole lot of them that. “Wish we could find a less harmful way to settle disputes,” we sigh.

*

The mention of the staircase made me think of the Potemkin Steps – the giant stairway in Odessa, another landmark habitation in Ukraine. Originally known as the Boulevard Steps, or the Giant Steps, these are considered the formal entrance into the city from the sea. Odessa, perched on a high steppe plateau, needed direct access to the harbour below which was, in days of yore, connected only by winding path and crude wooden stairs. A hundred years eroded ‘the monstrous stairs’ built with greenish grey sandstone shipped from Italy – and so in 1933, the sandstone was replaced by granite and the landings by asphalt. And in 1955, the Soviet government renamed it as the Potemkin Stairs to honour the 50th anniversary of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. After Ukraine gained independence it restored – as it did with many other streets and landmarks — the previous name of Primorsky Stairs.

But why did I recall this bit of history? Because of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin . “That silent 1925 film is a handbook for every editor!” –  Hrishikesh Mukherjee had said to me as he must have to hundreds of other students of cinema in India. And just seven years ago, in 2015, the European Film Academy put a commemorative plate on the stairs to indicate that the Potemkin staircase is a memorable place for European cinema.

*

Watching the news unfolding tirelessly on the idiot box my friend Shireen Elavia is reminded of the Hindi film Airlift (2016), which had dealt with the evacuation of the Indian expatriates stranded in that state bordering Iraq and Saudi Arabia, at the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, when the soldiers of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq had walked into Kuwait and run over it… “In a massive rescue operation in which our friend Raji had also participated, Air India under its regional director Mascarenhas had airlifted 170000 people…” Sonia pitched in. “I was at that time posted in Moscow.”

“It is not a question of the negativity of war,” again Sonia recounted what a dear friend of hers – Polish by birth and Indian by marriage – has said. “Ukraine suffers because of its geopolitical position.” History repeatedly shows that “Countries suffer either because they have a certain geopolitical position or because they sit on earth filled with riches.” How very tragic! For, if they now forget they are all still in East Europe, we all forget that we are inmates of the same home – this planet.

Pete Seeger: Courtesy: Creative Commons

A profound truth that we often overlook – or render to oblivion. A truth that Pete Seeger (1919-2014) had driven home to me in Delhi sometime in 1996. “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it. And that is how suddenly a song about the greens becomes a song that takes a step forward. This is what I call the folk process.”

*

The human drama unfolding between Russia and Ukraine, the two countries that have been described by a cartoonist as ‘divorced spouses,’ led yet another of my university friends, Usha Kelkar Srivastava, to re-play Where have all the flowers gone (1955), that old Pete Seeger favourite “which turns out to be a Ukrainian folk song”. The poignant melody was a favourite of ours when we went to university – much like Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind (1962) and John Lenon’s Imagine (1964) – and for decades after he’d penned it, regardless of which country he was in, the guru of country singing would sing the peace songs and the audience would sing with him. “They would sing the songs in schools and in summer camps. Some of us sang in churches and unions, some sang in coffee houses and people would gather around us and sing with us old songs and new…” Pete had recounted in the course of the four days I was really fortunate to have spent in his company. The legend who sang in defence of humanity, had come to Delhi at the invitation of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) — and when he returned to America, he gifted me a set of CDs signed to me which are among my prized possessions. 

“Just as a river takes the shape of the land it flows through, a song can echo the raw emotions of a land and people,” said Usha culling from her background in Music History. “Rarely has any song touched the world like the simple Where have all the flowers gone…” It has the cyclic structure of another Hebrew folk song about violence that I’d heard in an Amos Gitai film. Pete, while travelling in air, had come across a few lines in Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don: “Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army.” 

The lines from a Caucasian folk song “are sung in the Ukrainian countryside as Tovchu tovchu mak and Koloda Duda,” Usha added. Pete had adapted these words, adding the refrain of ‘Long time passing and Long time ago’ almost as a chorus. At some point in time he combined it with the tune of a traditional Irish lumberjack song – “only, I slowed down the energetic and full of vigour rendition,” and thus was born the haunting song. The three verses were later expanded by other country singers who added two more verses that underscore the tragedy thus: ‘Where have all the soldiers gone? They’re in the graves, everyone of them…and Now the flowers have come back, on the graves…’

“My only complaint is that this song is not specific enough,” Pete once said at a live concert in Sweden. “It’s too easy just to say, ‘When will we ever learn? Oh when will we ever learn?’ without saying what you want people to learn.” Yet, how potent this critique of war is can be gauged by the number of recordings, and the spread of languages in which it has been rewritten. 

The Kingston Trio first recorded it in 1961 not knowing it to be authored by Pete Seeger. In 1962 Marlene Dietrich performed it in English, French and German at a UNICEF concert – “and she sings it even better,” Seeger had said. On a tour of Israel, she rendered it in German, breaking the taboo of using that language publicly in that country. The song has versions in Dutch, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, Irish. It has been adapted to the piano, it exists in an instrumental version, and also as a parody! In 1964, Columbia Records released it in the Hall of Fame series and in 2002 Seeger was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in the Folk category. In 2010 New Statesman listed it among the Top 20 Political Songs worldwide.

I had the opportunity to hear the other American icon, Joan Baez, sing the contemporary folk song with operatic flourishes, in Manchester sometime in 1977. The activist songwriter had included the German version in her 1965 album, Farewell, Angelina. The very next year the much-loved voice of Harry Belafonte had recorded it in a Benefit concert in Stockholm. A Russian version was recorded in 1998 by Oleg Nesterov, who founded the Moscow based rock band Megapolis just before Perestroika. In the present century Olivia Newton-John recorded it in her 2004 album Indigo: Women of Song while Dolly Parton recorded it in 2005 for her album Those Were the Days. On August 9, 2009, it was sung at the funeral of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of WW1.

In Kolkata, where I now live, Anjan Dutt had covered “the old but always relevant song” in Rawng (Colour) Pencil, going on to remind us at the outset of the Gulf War, “Ekii chinta Bangla tey korechhe Lalon, Notun korey eki gaan geyechhe Lenon, Shei eki katha aaj gaichhe Suman, gaichhi aami shei eki gaan (The same thought had inspired the Baul Lalon Fakir; the American John Lenon, and Kolkata’s own Suman and me, to ask — When will they ever learn?)” As for Kabir Suman, who penned the Bengali version, Kothay gelo tara: he had himself rendered it on stage with Pete during that India tour of 1996.

Back then Pete was “very happy that the Berlin Wall came down so peacefully”. I distinctly recall asking the self-effacing giant if the wide reach of Where have all the flowers gone indicates that the world is finally learning about not going to war. The Times of India had carried his answer: “I don’t know whether songs really change things. All I do know is that throughout history, leaders have been particular about which songs they want sung!” And then the balladeer sang of a youth who was asked the same question, to say, ‘I don’t know if I can change the world… But I will make sure the world doesn’t change me…’ 

“That was a good song,” Pete had concluded. “When people around the world say that — that’s when the world will be changed.” 

Notes:
Shlokov received the Nobel prize for And Quiet Flows the Don in 1965. The book came out in four parts from 1928 to 1940.

Ratnottama Sengupta thanks the people mentioned here: Both Sonia Singh and Raji Sekhar are her batchmates from Elphinstone College, Bombay (now Mumbai). They worked in Air India. Usha Srivastava and Elizabeth George (then Vergese) were singers in Pranjyoti Choir. Usha Kelkar Srivastava, trained in Western classical music, later went on to give lessons in Music History at the American Embassy School, New Delhi. Bhamini Subramaniam is a designer while Shireen Elavia. Havewala, is a retired banker.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and writes books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Editorial

The Caged Birds Sing

...Don't you know
They're talkin''bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper...
-- Tracy Chapman,'Talkin 'Bout a Revolution
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
— Bible 

We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?

Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?

That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.

“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”

Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’.  Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?

 Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.

In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices?  We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.

We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.

Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!

While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?

Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares, and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.

We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.

Have a beautiful month!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Stories

Of Days and Seasons

 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.”

  “Always?”

 “Always.”

  “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”.

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