Kovačič Lojze:
A Story of the Dead Ljudmila

(from Tales from the Beehive Paintings)

    She was a wicked mother who always prevented her daughter Ljudmila from going out. She even denied her a mirror in the house. Thus the daughter admired her beauty in the stream behind the house or in the Krka, where cattle were watered. On the other side of the Krka lived Jurij. He had no faith in God nor a vocation and would say he needed none. By night he would follow the path of the moon, from beginning to end, and spin his hat on a beanpole. He was a lay-about, worse than gypsies. Those would at least, now and then, drag rocks from the quarry. He chose neither evil nor holy for to him both were intangible, but he also knew not what good meant. When people said, "Jur, you are like a beast," he just nodded and sunk his head on his chest like a raven in want of rest. At the wicked mother’s place his name was not to be mentioned and when the mother beat Ljudmila with an oxwhip because the girl thought of Jurij, she, too, did it without a word. One night, having greased the hinges, Ljudmila sneaked out and ran across the dam at the watering-place to the other side of the Krka. Amid the willows Jurij waited. He spun his hat on the beanpole and flung it on Ljudmila’s head. Then, in the shadow of the big hat it happened what was bound to happen. On Ljudmila’s return the door did not creak. To her mother, though, it sufficed to find, on the morrow, a leaf in her daughter’s bed, laying like a man’s hand in the midst of the sheet. The wicked mother did not weep. Deftly she made a fire under a big copper cauldron and asked the Virgin Mary for her permission. As Ljudmila came by and looked into the cauldron to get a glimpse of her face on the surface, she saw the black leaf at the bottom. And at that moment her mother pushed her into the scalding water, where her beauty and all trace of life were lost.

    Her grave was still new when at night Jur stole in. He dug out Ljudmila’s corpse, laid her into the grass, spread her arms and legs and took her, but not before he had cast a spell, whereupon the crosses and tombstones in the graveyard of Prečna shook and crashed into each other with infernal noise. After that Ljudmila could speak and hear again and could, like living souls, perform all the necessary tasks of her seeming life, not a shade different from a real one. She shivered with cold and Jur covered her with his big hat. Together they followed the path of the moon and finally stopped in the mountains, at a remote place, where Ljudmila could hide her death. Soon, Jur found a job and began to live like others. At first Ljudmila kept to the house for fear the community might guess she was dead, but after a while she herself forgot her true condition.

    On Thursdays she would wash, on Fridays fast and iron linen, and her speech became like the speech of others. The village women came and brought her their pastry. In return, she offered them her home-made jam. With Jur she lived on The Slope; at noon their house smelt of bread and on the pasture downhill their cow bellowed. For Easter Ljudmila went to the village fair, bought some pig-fat, a hanky with a woven lily and woolen socks for her beloved. At the fair there was an accordionist, who roamed about the country, playing merry tunes. At this place of mirth, Jur coming from work met Ljudmila at a market-stall. They danced to the music of the accordion and to the sound of the accordion they went home. When they were gone the music ceased and the fair grew silent.

But through the accordionist all was disclosed. He made a long detour to reach the wicked mother’s house and recount that at the fair he had seen Ljudmila in Jur’s embrace, neither of them afraid of the holy Easter bells. The wicked mother gave him bread and meat and threw him out without a word. At dusk she went to Ignatius, the priest. No sooner did she enter the vicarage than the whole parish darkened. Ignatius was in a gay mood and drunk but his laughter turned into squeals under the wicked mother’s eye, as he learned how her daughter had fooled death. The wicked mother urged him to call at Ljudmila’s place to see the truth for himself and bring her back to her home in the churchyard. The vicar, however, was rather lazy and it took guile on the part of the mother him realize that she was serious.

    So, on the following day he took his carriage loaded with a bread-chest, in truth coffin in disguise, and drove to his destination. As he appeared at the foot of the hill, Ljudmila knew she could hide her death no more. The priest sat down at the kitchen table and the young woman brought him some home-brewed brandy. Now he saw she was with child. He burst into laughter, as he oft did - but not in spite, for the latter he confined only to his sleep. He laughed because the human muddle reminded him anew that the whole world was turned upside down once and for all. But then, he was well, feasting on bread and brandy, the place was cosy and he weary, so instead of calling Ljudmila the Devil’s bride, he said, "Dear girl, what has smitten you to have got yourself into this state?" Instead of railing at Ljudmila, "You flesh, rotten from death," he just smiled, "You have plumped out prettily." Still, at the height of his weary delirium, a moment of reluctant sobriety came and he mumbled, "Your mother would rather have you dead that tied to forbidden love." To which Ljudmila replied, "But my mother killed me." Ignatius, the priest, turning a deaf ear to any doubt, only smiled remorsefully, handing her his empty glass, "Yes, one more, gladly." In gloomy resignation, which is alike for the living and the dead, Ljudmila poured him another brandy. Without saying much, she was yielding slowly to death. From a drawer she took her funeral shirt, neatly washed and ironed, smelling of lavender. She put it on and took her rosary. She made her face white with some powder she had purchased at the fair, but could have done without for her face grew paler and paler each minute. Then she lay down in the large bread-chest brought by Ignatius, the priest, on his carriage, and folded her arms. The vicar nailed up the chest, and she saw how his hands were shaking and was sorry for him. The priest, too, pitied himself, though the trembling did not come from emotion but the exhaustion of old age.

    The long carriage ride over the stony winding roads jolted Ljudmila, shut in the bread-chest; she began a labor. The wicked mother, all the same, bade that more nails be driven into the lid. And when Ljudmila was lowered into a deep, fort-like grave and Ignatius, the priest, wept with fatigue, a joyous cry of the new-born baby rose out of the coffin.

Translated by Miriam Drev