This story is of those times, when the world was a less complicated place to live. Gods were more compassionate, sun was milder and moon was cooler. Like sun, the moon didn’t have any phases. Every night was a full moon night. There were only two seasons of six months each: summer and winter. The stars were sad, as no one appreciated their beauty before the dazzling celestial globe. The stars didn’t twinkle then.
Then one winter night…
It was a dark and cold night. Snow hadn’t started to fall yet and the birds and squirrels had doubled their efforts to hoard for the coming winter, when the ground will be buried under tons of snow. The sky was clear and violet, embellished by tiny and bright stars, like a box of glitters spilled on a dark velvety bedsheet. The bright full moon was guarding the skies like a zealous schoolmaster over tiny children.
Six years old Pyotr was hurrying towards his home at the end of the forest. Clothed in inadequate tatters, he was beating his chest and arms in efforts to keep warm. Suddenly he heard the crying of a small infant. Pyotr had lived all his life in these woods and was aware of the evil god of forest, Berstuk, who lured away unwary travelers by producing strange sounds, and then devored them. He was too smart for him. He recited the prayer of Morana, who was the Slavic goddess of witchcraft. The sound still persisted. His curiosity got better of him. He kept his stout stick, rabbit trap and coiled rope on the protruding roots of a tree and cautiously ventured towards the sound, ready to bolt at the slightest sign of danger or of the forest devil Berstuk.
He saw a small girl whimpering, swathed in a bundle of clothes. Pyotr had never seen anything so tiny and exquisite. He immediately picked the infant up, who quietened for a moment at the change of scenario, then howled to the might of its tiny lungs. He picked up the girl in one hand and gathered the stick, trap and ropes in another, and sprinted happily towards his hut; careless of the fact that he hadn’t captured anything today and he and his mother may have to sleep hungry.
Nyatlana was peeling some edible grass roots to boil in a soup, when she heard her son banging the door excitedly. She opened the door and was taken aback at the sight of the little girl. Pyotr excitedly told her the story. “Is she the Forest Fairy, Maman?” He asked breathlessly, his eyes wide like large saucers.
“Yes, my son. She’s the Forest Nymph.” His mother answered to avoid his further barrage of questions. How could she explain him that the tiny angel was abandoned by an unwed mother? How could she explain the helpless desperation, which made a mother throw her child to the wolves, to protect her and her family’s honor? There could be a hundred reasons and justifications of an ugly act, but they can never alter the painful outcome.
Pyotr was proud of his acquisition and clucked around the infant like a mother hen around its chicks. The bleak hut was illuminated by the happiness only a tiny girl child can bring. Pyotr named her Lelya, after the Slavic goddess of beauty. As the child grew, Pyotr became more protective of her. Four years later, things changed. Befitting her name, Lelya was growing into an angelic beauty. Pyotr had grown into a grave young kid of 10. The seasons were still unchanged and so was the moon. The nights were still bright and illuminated till morning, due to the huge round moon, much to the chagrin of the tiny stars. The winters were still heartless. The small family of Pyotr still starved in the winters, when there were no rabbits to snare and no birds to catch. When even the roots and grass were frozen under the snow.
It was such a night, when Pyotr returned empty handed from the forest. The hut was in semi darkness. Few damp wooden sticks were burning in the stove, which was trying half-heartedly to fight the bitter cold and was failing. The hungry family shivered in inadequate clothes before the feeble fire. Hunger requires a tandem of body and mind. If either is out of sync, it can be suppressed temporarily and can be forgotten. The poor Slavic family knew that if they busy their minds, it cannot think about food. So, they talked. They talked about gods and kings. They talked about fairies and spirits. They willed the dark and cold night to admit defeat. All the warriors, including the tiny girl were up in arms against the dark night and hunger, and they were winning. The 10 years old boy and his mother were veterans in this war, but the little girl was a novice and gave up soon. She whimpered and cried with hunger and the mother cuddled her.
“Let the snow thaw, Lelya, then Pyotr will cut many trees in the forest. Then we will sell the wood and buy a goat. I’ll make the best cheese you have ever seen!” The mother cajoled, with the 10 years old kid nodding importantly, his grave visage belying his tender age.
“What’s cheese, Maman?” Lelya asked curiously.
“It’s soft and yellow. You see that moon? It’s like that, and very tasty!” Nyatlana explained while pointing to the moon, which was hung gloriously, like a huge silver plate.
The child stared at the moon intently for a minute, then declared, “I want that!”
The mother and the son laughed. The laughter managed what the flickering fire couldn’t. The wretched hut was filled with a warmth, which banished hunger and cold. The moon heard this demand and smiled indulgently.
Next day onwards, everyday Lelya sat outside the hut at sunset and waited for the moon to rise. As soon as the glorious orb was up in the heavens, she would hurry to call her brother and ask him when he’ll get it for her. As the ground was still frozen and the animals were hibernating, and as he didn’t have anything better to do, Pyotr decided to capture the moon for her.
He started thinking of ways to capture the moon, but was unable to find any. Finally, he decided to use the net which he used to catch birds with and ensnare the moon in it. He tried to climb a tree and swung the net as high as he could, but couldn’t reach the moon. The stars giggled at his efforts. The moon smiled condescendingly. Finally Pyotr decided to build a huge mound of snow, so that he can climb on that and catch the moon. He didn’t sleep and spent the entire night in carting in the fallen snow and compacting it in a mound.
The yawning moon was turning in, when he saw the little boy toiling with the little girl happily skipping behind. He stopped, puzzled, and looked closely. Then he realized that the child was trying to capture him and he guffawed. The bewildered sun saw the laughing moon shaking his head and going behind the mountains.
Next evening, when the moon rose from his pit in heavens, he saw the child still toiling, with the girl sitting on a rock, crooning some song. The mound looked little bigger now. He stood on the horizon, watching this industry for a minute and then shook his head in amusement at this impossible task. He went about his business. He had spent thousands of years in this world and had seen hundreds and thousands of children. He knew that the child will give up soon. Came morning and the kid was still hard at work. The moon smiled indulgently and went to his pit to rest. Sure in his conviction that when he will come tonight, the child would have given up.
From that day onwards, whenever the moon rose, he could see the child working like a busy bee and the mound growing slowly and inexorably in size. On the fifteenth day, the moon started to get worried. He had seen the world and understood the meaning of perseverance. He knew that water, in spite of its gentle and fluid nature, can cut its way through the proud and solid mountains through perseverance. That morning a very worried moon went to his pit, hoping that the child would desist.
Next evening, when the moon rose up in skies, he could see the small mound, but the child was absent. He laughed at his own stupid fears. How can a small child capture him? Suddenly he saw the kid tramping towards his mound with a burrow full of snow and the girl happily skipping behind. Now the moon was panicked. He traversed the sky warily, with an eye out for the kid, trying to gauge the height of the mound and comparing it with his position. The mental stress had started taking its toll and the moon wasn’t so glorious anymore.
Day on day the mound was growing in height and the moon started becoming thinner. The nights started to become darker than usual. The gods were worried. They weren’t sure what the child can do, but no one could deny that he’s focused enough to do it and no one wanted to find it out. Finally, the gods went to Belobog, who was the god of light and sun and was considered to be the wisest of all the gods. They requested his intervention. By this time the moon was only a sliver of his former self and the nights were dark. Furthermore, to avoid seeing the child, the moon started to rise later and later. Finally one day moon was so worried, he couldn’t get up from the bed and didn’t rise. The stars were happy, because in the absence of the moon, they had to light up the heavens with their soft shine. They winked at the kid, thanking him and they began twinkling. Pyotr was too engrossed to notice.
Next morning Belobog met Pyotr. The boy was working alone. The industrious child was too busy to talk to an old man and asked him to wait. Belobog saw the kid dragging a burrow to the end of the cliff, cut in large chunks of ice from the frozen ground, drag it back to his mound then cart it to the top. Seeing his efforts, Belobog was amused. He asked the boy, “My son, why are you working so hard? What exactly are you trying to accomplish?”
“I’m going to capture the moon for my sister.” The breathless Pyotr announced.
Belobog was puzzled! He couldn’t understand why would a small girl demand the moon! When he asked, Pyotr told him the entire story. Belobog, The Wise, immediately discerned that the main reason for this whim and fancy was the hunger, which along with the idleness was the result of those long winter nights. He told the boy, “Son, even if you capture the moon, it won’t be worthwhile. As you see, he already has stopped rising. By the time you will reach him, he won’t be in the heavens anymore. So all your efforts will be wasted.”
Pyotr stopped and suddenly realized that the old man was right! Lately the nights were getting darker and yesterday it was so dark that he could barely see. “But, what about my promise to my sister?” The worried kid asked the old man.
“I’ll give you a huge round slab of cheese, which will resemble the moon. You tell her that you captured the moon. She won’t know the difference.” Belobog offered.
“But what about the next winter? Again she will get hungry and demand the moon!” The boy argued reasonably.
Belobog thought for a minute and said, “What I’ll do is, I’ll shorten the winter and sandwich it between two more seasons: autumn and spring. Autumn will prepare you for the winter and the ground will be thawed in spring, so that you won’t stay hungry.”
The boy was dubious. “All right. I’ll take it. But I should warn you. If she asks for the moon again, I will have to capture it, I hope you understand.”
Belobog agreed and the terms of the treaty were consolidated with a huge and round slab of cheese. The moon was given this news and he ventured out fearfully. He was happy to see that the kid had abandoned his project and once again started fattening up. The world had two new seasons, which alleviated the harsh and freezing winter.
Although the crisis was averted successfully through the wisdom of Belobog, the moon was mortally scared by this episode and had become paranoid. To this day, girls always demand the moon. Whenever the poor moon hears this demand, he starts getting thinner in fear, till a compromise is found by someone and the girl settles for a substitute. We, in our monumental ignorance call it the ‘Phases of the Moon’. The stars are happier and twinkle their thanks to Pyotr for allowing them the short glory.
Ideally I write a story first and then search for a suitable image to go with it. I wrote this story on the above image. I found that image as the FB cover of a very dear friend of mine and was immediately smitten by it’s mute beauty. A small girl and a boy trying to capture the elusive moon! I was intrigued and weaved this story. In Hindi it’s called ‘Kafan le ke murda talaash karna’. 😀
I don’t know anything about Slavic mythology. The names of the Slavic gods in this story are filched from Google. The image is pilfered from the FB cover of my said friend. In short, nearly everything in this story is stolen, except for the words and the flight of fantasy, which are my own. A fitting tribute to the Arch Thief Moon, who’s own glory is stolen from that lovely sunshine!