The Huck

Nowhere does the devil, with all its litter and creatures, hide better than in the waters. The devil of the marshes, everybody knows, mingles with people and is the most delusive of them all. It takes various shapes: from the small light flickering in the darkness of the night, luring the lost traveler into the deep, to the slender girl bathing in the whirlpools, that is nothing but a sly spirit, a trap to drown the ignorant lads. The Evil one had long placed a creature with the look of a huck in the Bistriţa. From high up at its springs and as far as beyond Piatra, the devil's fish has showed itself in whirlpools and streams, with its round catfish head, slender pike perch body and gold‑sprinkled skin, with brownish‑red dots, like the trout's. According to the fish hunters' estimations, she is four feet long and weighs over fifteen kilos. However, sometimes when she wants to deceive by all means someone she set her eyes on, she stretches three times as long and changes her appearance. She gets out and lies softly on her side. From afar, you might say she is a princess lying in the sun, on the silver‑sanded beach. The magic huck has lured many people. Skillful fishermen have set traps, but they fell into the charmer's trap themselves and perished in the deep for ever. She baited into her snare ignorant children, young boys dazzled by her splendour, lads easily dazed and tempted by her beauty. Every year she would take her toll, consisting of one or two mindless fellows, down, into the abyss. For some time now, people have come to realize the danger and take heed. When they saw the huck cutting up and down through the waters like the flash of a sword, they turned their eyes away and took to their heels. When they saw her swimming along the currents and floating downstream with them, the rafters lost no time and steered away, avoiding the witch. She was rapacious! Greedy for fish, which she gulped down galore. But mostly insatiable for human flesh, which she had come to long for. And, being hungry, she became more and more daring, beautiful and alluring. But the world too was ever more watchful. For, by now, the huck has become famous. Everybody knew and avoided her. Of all the generations of boys who grew up into lads, running wildly with their fishing rods to catch the huck, some had perished drowned, others, more fearful, had given up. Aliman alone had remained faithful to her. He kept putting fishhooks with all sorts of tasty baits, living trouts especially, and hadn't yet given up all hope that she would once fall into his hands. He did not believe in those bedtime stories. He was laughing when he heard of spirits that turned into hucks, or the devil transformed into a fish. And the lad was unrelentingly after the beast of the waters, which seemed to avoid him. If she has her charms, then I have mine too, he was joking and went fishing again. As he had been hurling his fishing rod and had been putting fishhooks for so many years, he saw the famous huck too, flashing through the whirlpools, lithe and perfectly wonderful, like a fairy tale fish. And yet a real fish. Well, when he became a stout young man who knew all the tricks of the beasts, he managed to catch her once with his fishing rod. Just for a second! When, his heart pounding madly, he stooped to pull her out, the huck slipped away with bait and all. Due to everything she had been through, she too got used to people's fishing tools and learnt how to get away from them. This is how Aliman consoled himself, when talking about the incident. This was at the beginning of spring. About the middle of summer, he saw her again and cornered her in a bend where the water was only up to the ankle. He stooped quickly and took her in his arms. But the creature jerked once with all her might, slapped his face with her tale and slipped off his arms like a shimmering arrow, the same way a nimble girl would sometimes slip away from him at a Sunday dance. It is just that he didn't hear her giggle too. The lad stayed there dumbfounded and gaping for a long time. And, ever since, a voluptuousness like a distant taste of the huck never left the flesh of his arms. He kept feeling her weight and shape in his unskillful hands and troubled soul. Aliman was handsome and strong. He feared no one. The less so the unseen and the unknown. Bistriţa had no more secrets for him and he could stay underwater as long as an otter. He swore to himself he would catch the huck alive and allowed himself no more rest, day or night. From a long way beyond a place called Toance to the Siret and back, he checked the waters, explored the whirlpools, searched the eddies, like a madman. He ran, ate, slept and lived only on the gravel banks and in water. Everybody noticed and pestered him that the devilish huck had charmed him and that she would do him in soon. He no longer laughed as he used to. He would stubbornly hang his head down and leave without listening. He was just about to drown quite a number of times. But never on account of the huck. Always in other circumstances. Once, when he jumped to save a few rafters from the river's whirls. Another time, for a fishing rod taken by the waters. Several times he came out barely breathing, his neck clutched by the arms of children who had fallen into the deep. Recently, when he tried to pull out a horse that had been caught in a whirlpool, he hardly crept out of the stream onto a floating reed islet, where he lay unconscious for a long time. He didn't know how and who was pulling him alive out of the bottomless abyss. Quite on the contrary, when he saw the huck, everything went well and he was thriving. He would effortless catch a pile of fish and the waters would submit to him obediently, carrying him easily wherever he wanted. But the huck showed herself more and more seldom. Then, towards the end of summer, she disappeared completely... Of so much anxiety and running the lad pined away. Out of spite, one could say, if not out of longing. He wandered alone along the desolate banks haunted by the early fall. The waters came in torrents, ever blacker and more swollen, muddying the clear shallow portions where the creatures came to light. Now, all of them had hidden and lay down deep. Later, an unusually hard winter enveloped the valley, covering it in ice and snow. One had to put his ear onto the thick green flint shell of ice, stifling Bistriţa like a tombstone, to be able to barely discern, here and there, a silent and distant gurgle, the sign that the river was still alive. Aliman languished away, he lay sick almost all the time. He seemed to have fallen into the winter sleep himself. Only the thought of the huck would bring him back to life. Then, he would take the axe and break holes and air ways along the whirlpools, to let a little air to the fish, which otherwise would have died stifled underneath. Sometimes, the lads and the lasses would drag him to evening sittings. But he would just sit there gloomily. He only became alert when they started telling stories about the magic huck. He listened greedily to her feats and smiled. He sounded out at length those to whom she had shown herself. He tried to find out about the charms and the sorcerers that had power over the waters and the fish. And then he sank into deep thoughts. Until, finally, God took pity and spring came. Bistriţa broke its chains and the waters rushed angrily towards their old freedom. The valley was filled with roaring, rumble and thundering as in a terrible battle. Whirlpools carried by freshets, isolated logs, raft fragments, living or drowned cattle were passing downstream every day. People stayed in groups, trying to take out of the water whatever they could reach with their hooks. Little by little, the wrath subsided and waters ebbed to their bed. Nimble trouts appeared, chased by hungry hucks flashing after them. Only the big huck didn't show up. Had she been hit by an ice floe or by a log suddenly thrown by the waves? Had she been drawn by the terrible freshet to other regions? Had she moved to other abysses, richer in fish? Aliman looked for her anxiously for some time. Around Easter, she appeared again. More beautiful and slier, undulating her body laden with womanly temptations. Aliman's heart started beating quickly again. Colour returned to his cheeks. And his manhood, his boldness of long ago were proven in all sorts of unbelievable feats, as he easily defeated angry Bistriţa's powers. He would come off victorious and unharmed from all trials... Fishing was an endless stroke of good luck with him. He would casually go to catch a couple of trouts for a snack, searching with his bare hands under the rocks, and returned with a bagful of fish. It was only the coveted huck, now playing with him and defying him openly, that he couldn't lay his hands on, and he still felt her sweet weight in his remembering arms. Advised by some lowlanders who had come up there to buy wood, he wove out of twigs a kind of wicker weirs, that looked like cages, which he filled with living trouts and hid from place to place, in the water near the banks, where he knew the beast would come... He only left an entrance like a funnel, through which the huck could get in, but not out. With others, he devised a flap that would only open from the outside and close as soon as the catch was in. All of no avail. The mountaineers were laughing at his cages in which he wanted to catch the waters. Traps for stupid pond fish. It was just that, in the morning, he found the baits eaten and the lattice work broken as if by a human hand. Aliman sank into thoughts and realized that something was not right. And he started longing again. One day he made up his mind. He went up into the mountains, to an isolated village on the Neagra. He had heard that an old wizard was living there, a great fish charmer; a sort of master of the waters. He climbed up for an entire day and reached there late in the night. He found the cottage, knocked and asked for lodging. The wizard let him in and hosted him for several days. What he said to him, what he taught him, what spells he cast over him, no on knows. Aliman returned home with a wooden huck, as slender and beautiful as the one in the Bistriţa. Painted like her in gold and silver and sprinkled with brownish‑red dots. It was made of two halves joined with crampons. After having rubbed it all over with huck milt and water weeds, he put into the hollow body of the fake another smaller fish, carved in deer horn, to keep it balanced in the water and to steer it. Everything was enchanted, spellbound and consecrated, according to ancient customs and rules of the magic that had been lost and forgotten by the others. And one midnight, when the moon quarter polished the lad's naked body, Aliman went into the middle of the river with the spellbound fish in his hand, whispered the magic formula he had learnt by heart, saying that he was giving up the world of God, and let the huck‑shaped puppet go. The waters accepted it and seemed to suddenly rise, carrying it obediently. As instructed, the man then went to sleep. He slept deeply and peacefully, as he had never done before, until next day at noon, when the people woke him up. It had rained up in the mountains and Bistriţa had come in floods, from one bank to the other, carrying village fragments down the valley, houses, people and cattle. He, the most daring and skillful, would have to go and help too. When Aliman arrived, there was nothing to be done anymore. They had all passed like spirits, with mournful clamour, overcome by the waves' uproar, and had disappeared far away. Only a raft fragment could be seen upstream, circling madly in the water whirling, which threw it downwards, then spun it in a huge whirlpool. On it, a human being barely held to the remainder of a helm. Aliman was getting ready to go boldly into the water and wait for it at a proper place, hook in hand, when the raft tore away from the raging waters and came to the shore in no time, to his very feet. He took a girl from among the fragments, the only creature that hadn't been seized by the greedy waters. She was unconscious. The lad put her on the grass, rubbed her heart, pressed her chest, the way one does with the drowned. The girl came to her senses at once. She had swallowed no water. She smiled to her saviour, looked anxiously at the crowd around them and asked for food. The people were astonished to see how her blouse, skirt and shoes were quickly drying, as if she had never been soaked. They also noticed that her hair fell on her shoulders like golden streams on a white stone. Her eyes, golden‑green amber speckled with blue, were large, round, but cold like glass. And her teeth, which bit into a piece of bread Aliman offered her, were white, but pointed like a beast's. The girl was lying still. But Aliman did not leave her there for a long time. He hastily took her home, where he put her away from the eyes of the others. And a love as no one had ever seen in those parts began between them. They seemed to have been specially made and brought together for each other. She was beautiful, perhaps with too chubby a face, slender, with a long, lithe body and a high thigh cleavage like good swimmers have. The lad forgot at once about the huck and charms. He held the girl in his arms, and her sweet weight fulfilled all he had madly coveted and longed for. During the day, they stayed indoors or walked embraced in the woods. At night, they went to the Bistriţa, holding each other round their necks. They bathed with relish, both naked, until the break of day. The waters were alternately golden, silvery, then blue, enveloping them secretly. When the waves became the colour of pink diamond, they came out and got dressed. They caught trouts and ate them on the spot, roasted on a fir wood fire, as the girl liked it. Several weeks passed. The village was buzzing with rumours like an irritated swarm of bees. They said that the girl was sucking the lad's blood like a vampire. But Aliman was healthier, stronger, more handsome and kinder than always. And they had no care in the world. People said the huck had appeared again. It no longer hid. It was floating along in everybody's sight... But the lad cared no more whether it was the wooden or the real one. The whole past went out of his head and time passed ravingly like a Bistriţa full of delights... At some point, when he came to his senses a little, the lad started to think of the necessary arrangements, marriage, wedding party, in an attempt to settle his good fortune. And he spoke to the girl. She roared with laughter foolishly, taking him round his neck. She cared about her lover and loving, but not a bit about priests or church. She didn't come into the world for that. She was wild. Full of secrets and mysteries. And he didn't even know her name. He decided to call her Ileana. But everything comes to an end. About the middle of summer, a stout woman, quick and giddy like waters after the rain, rushed upon them. She sternly separated them and took the girl by her arm, scolding her angrily. She was Ileana's mother, who had found her shelter after long investigations. She was coming from far uphill, at the springs of the Golden Bistriţa, where she said her household was. Everybody knew Bistriceanca's old piece of land... and she pulled the girl, chided her angrily for having forgotten her parents, disowned her sisters, and left her properties in order to shamelessly stick to the poverty and humbleness of the people in these parts. The girl objected in vain. Her mother whispered a few words into her ear, that seemed to allay her. Pushed aside with one hand, Aliman was standing dumbfounded, devoid of strength like an unloaded weapon. And, before coming to his senses, the woman had already left with her capture. Aliman uselessly searched the springs of all the Bistriţas – Black, White, Golden – and all the Bistricioaras until late fall. No one knew or even heard of Bistriceanca and her daughter, or of their abode. It was only an old man, over one hundred, who remembered them. He was still a child when the villagers drove them away with stones and burnt their house to the ground for the countless wicked things and mischiefs they had performed with the help of Satan. He then looked for the wizard that had cast the spell over him. He didn't find him either. He had left across the mountains, to some relatives. The lad came back, locked himself up in the house and shrank into himself. He became sickly and weak like a rag. Everyone could dispose of him as they pleased. He never objected to anything. Quite soon, some plucky girl set her eyes on him and duped him easily. And they got engaged, so that she would bind him completely. Aliman gave in, miles away from this world. He no longer went into the woods to hunt, he no longer climbed down to the waters of the Bistriţa. He seemed to have forgotten about the huck, the fishing rods, the deer. He was getting married just because he no longer had the strength to resist some wretched girl that was less than an insect to him, and he cared no more about anything. The wedding was set just before Lent, around St. Philip. The previous night, it had rained heavily in the mountains and fog was still lingering. But, in the valley, it was warm and clear as in summer. The long tables were roaring with laughter and mirth in the godfather's yard. The bride and bridegroom had come from the church and were sitting between their godparents. The young woman, happy and proud. Aliman, confused, because he had dreamt the previous night he was getting married to the huck, and the old wizard was his godfather. She was standing erect by him, on her tail like two legs about to part, and was leaning her chubby‑cheeked head against his. Brandy was pouring. A mug of rye brandy was changing hands. Everybody cheerfully raised the glass to Aliman, who would hobnob with just about anyone, with no exception, and drink off at one draught. About the middle of the feast, a boy came running with the news that the magic huck had appeared again. She's here, out by the shore, under the slope of hell, lying in the sun like a princess. She seems to be asleep. She only moves her tale, as if waving flies away. She's bigger and more beautiful than before. As soon as he heard of the huck, Aliman, drunk as a lord, awoke as from a deep sleep and jumped crazily from among the wedding guests, shouting: "She will not get away this time! I'm going to eat her at my wedding party!" And he ran like a madman towards the river. A big uproar could be heard closer and closer, accompanied by a deafening noise and a terrible rumble. The valley thundered frightened again, as in the middle of a battle. The waters came down in waves leaping like buffaloes over one another, and people were staring in awe. Aliman alone did not see or hear. He kept running towards the torrent, a group of frightened wedding guests after him. And he felt again the sweetness of her unforgettable weight awakened in the flesh of his arms. When he arrived to the place the boy spoke about, the huck was there. Suddenly, she turned her ravishing head straight to Aliman. She stayed like this for a whole moment. Then, she rushed to him, flashing in the waters. The man stood stone‑still. But his face was instantly lit by an unnatural happiness, and he yelled, trying to cover the rumble: "Here I come!"... and, tearing himself away from the hands of three men, he jumped into the middle of the Bistriţa, his arms stretched towards the huck. Thundering tempestuously, the freshet reached him. The huge waves passed over his head with logs, roofs and foot bridges. He came out once more. He was holding the huck and, dizzy from the waters' blow, he was trying to protect her, shielding her with his arms as if she were a child. Then, he sank into the waves, which closed above him for good, bubbling angrily. However, Aliman's story has lived on, endlessly supple. It keeps growing and new elements are added every year, invented by people, for they always crave for unnatural happenings. It wanders up and down the banks of the Bistriţa. It goes up with the wagoners, goes down with the rafters, and lingers with the children... But it constantly moves on along with the magic and always restless huck, that flashes like a sword across whirlpools, or rests among the reeds, exposing its womanly body lying in the sun to the thrilled and foolish lads.  Translated by Liviu Bleoca

by Vasile Voiculescu (1884-1963)