Start page

Lesja Ukrainka

Encyclopedia of the life and works


Act 3

Lesja Ukrainka

Translated by Percival Cundi

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

A cloudy, windy autumn night. The last pallid gleams of moonlight fade out amidst the wild confusion of the forest’s 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 Lukash’s 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 I’ve 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 o’er

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 moment’s 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 can’t.

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 I’ve 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 I’m 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, I’d ride on that black goat,

His horses meanwhile left alone in peace.

Those women don’t 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, they’ll 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.

They’ll 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.)

We’re here! Who’s calling us!


Go, disappear!

No one was calling you!

One Starveling

The word went forth,

Can’t be recalled.


(Besieging the threshold.)

Hey, open up the door,

At once, at once! We’re starving, famishing!


I will not let you in!


Give us to eat!


I haven’t anything…


The cranberries

You’re wearing on your bosom! Give us those!


But that’s 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!.. She’s not humankind!

They desist, gnashing their teeth and whimpering from hunger.


(To Kutz)

Well, you give us to eat or we’ll eat you!

(They rush at Kutz who jumps backwards.)


Now, now, go slow!


Give us to eat! We starve!


Just wait a while; I’ll wake those women up.

You’ll all get food, and I’ll 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

You’ll hear your name. But sit here still,

Or else the dame will put a curse on you

And you’ll 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.


It’s 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? What’s 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)

I’ll go and milk the one that I found here;

She’ll give me just about three drops of milk –

A pound of butter, eh?


You’d best not talk!

Who is to blame if we don’t 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 didn’t you

Take her and dress her up a bit? You’d then

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


You don’t 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 you’re wearing it – for shame!


Why not? You’ve got to find your own clothes here!..

Here is my husband, gone off with the wind.

We’re sinking into poverty the while.

I’m neither wife nor widow – just a waif!


Could any husband stick it out with you?

You greedy shark! What we had, you’ve 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, who’s 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 didn’t pay you for your work?


(As before.)

No one can ever pay me what is due.


For what then did you come? He isn’t here.

I know, you’re 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 he’s dead…


You’ve 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 lightning’s fly?


(Plucking at Mavka’s sleeve.)

Be off! Don’t 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 won’t give us a bite!


She won’t?

(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?


What’s that to you?


I’ll make a whistle from it.


I don’t 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! Where’ve you been carrying on

For all this time?


Don’t ask…


I mustn’t ask?

You run away, footloose, the Lord knows where!

You chase around and then you say: “Don’t ask!”

But, dearie, I don’t need to ask you where…

Some place where there’s a tavern, where a fool

Can swill, and gamble all his clothes away.


It was no tavern…


Who’ll 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 Uncle’s 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 ne’er be felled.


Your Uncle Lev

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

Did either you or I swear any oath?

I’d gladly sell the whole cursed forest too,

Or root it out entire. Then we’d have land

Like other folk and not this bush bewitched.

When evening comes, it terrifies one’s soul,

And what good do we ever win from it?

We grub here in the forest like the wolves,

And, really, soon we’ll learn to howl like them.


Hush, hush! Don’t talk like that! Shut up!

(His voice vibrates with a terrified apprehensiveness.)

You say

To sell the forest… cut it down… and then

It won’t be like… what you just said?


Said what?

That like the wolves…


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

No, don’t say it!


(Freeing herself from his grasp.)

Good God!

You’re drunk, or mad, or someone’s put a spell

On you! Go in the house.


All right, I’ll go

I’ll go at once… but first I’ll 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 don’t know…


Did someone come while I was gone?



Who would

Come here?


(Dropping his eyes.)

I know not…


(With a wicked smile.)

You don’t 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 you’d hoped!

Whate’er was here, it’s gone into that tree…


What’s 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, she’s the witch?.. Well now, it was your fate

To be a witch’s mother-in-law for sure.

And who’s 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!

She’s 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, so’s the son, ‘tis plain to see!

For what ill fortune did you bring me here?

To make a mock of me?


Why don’t 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 moment’s peace!

Do you want me to clear out of this house

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


(To Mother.)

You see, that’s 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 Kilina’s 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, you’ve 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.

It’s “Uncle”, isn’t it?


(Somewhat ashamed.)

I don’t care which!

Come here, come here, my child! Don’t be afraid.

(He pats the boy’s blond head.)

So, did you make that pipe yourself?


I did.

But still I don’t 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 don’t want to show me! Mother, hey!

Why doesn’t 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 ne’er saw that before.

(To Kilina.)

You planted it?


Who’d ever plant it there?

Some willow branch fell down and sprouted roots;

The water made it grow… and all these rains…



Why don’t 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 don’t associate with forest sprites,

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

No one is stopping you. I’ll 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 can’t…

There’s 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 Kilina’s 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 Kilina’s 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…

I’ve 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,

Let’s go back to the village.


I won’t go.

I’ll never leave the forest. Here I’ll stay.


What sort of work can you get here?


Why must

We work at all?


But still we’ve got to live?


And must we live?


For God’s sake, husband, have

You gone completely off your head, or what?

Maybe what’s 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.)

Who’s 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, that’s right. They’d 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.

I’ll run off somewhere, borrow me a horse –

For ours have all been roasted in the fire.

We’ll load this on the cart and then we’ll drive

To your folks – maybe they will take us in…

Oy, woe! We’ve 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 o’er;

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 one’s happiness is gone?


(Pointing to the ground at his feet.)

Only like a twig that’s 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 I’ll 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.

I’ll 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…