The Water of Forgetfulness
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I wanted to share this story with you: A reminder about the brevity of life and how our perspective shapes our existence.
By Rudolf Baumbach
In a round tower room, which was adorned with weapons of the chase, antlers and stuffed fowls, a young fellow sat on a wooden stool, twisting a bow-string from out a martin's sinew, and at the same time, sang a merry hunting song. He wore the clothes erf a hunter, and by his short cut hair showed he was a servant of the lord of the castle. His name was Heinz.
Over the young fellow from the ceiling hung a swinging hoop, and in the hoop sat a gray falcon with bound wings and a leather hood over its eyes. Once in a while the hunter paused in his work and set the slow-swinging hoop again in fast motion. This was done that the falcon might not fall asleep, for it was a young bird, and was to be trained to become a hunting falcon ; for the training of a falcon skilled in hunting began thus, that it might be made submissive through hunger and sleeplessness.
Heinz had been the count's falconer, and the old lord had kept the young fellow very busy. But lately he had easy days. The count hunted no more ; for a year past he had lain calm and still in the stone tomb decorated with the family coat of arms, and his widow, Adelheid, sat the whole day together with the chaplain and thought not of hunting.
To-day the lady of the castle must doubtless have become tired of prayers, for she left her own apartments and went over all the rooms of the castle. The song of the young hunter was an agreeable change to her after the monotonous psalm singing of the sniffling chaplain. She sought the voice and entered the apartment in the tower.
Heinz was astonished when he saw the proud lady in widow's veil and gray gown enter. He rose and courtesied low. Lady Adelheid let her sparkling eyes glide over the slender figure of the falconer and smiled graciously, and her smile appeared to the young fellow like the sunlight in May. She asked much about falconry and hunting, and then departed.
It happened a few days after this that Lady Adelheid rode into the green forest on a swan-white palfrey. However, she wore no gray garment, but a gown of green velvet, and instead of the widow's veil a hat of sable with a waving feather. Behind her, bearing a hunting falcon on his clenched hand, rode Heinz, the young falconer, with an expression of joy in his blue eyes.
They had ridden quite a distance, and the towers of the castle had long since vanished behind the wide spreading beech trees, when Lady Adelheid turned her head and said :
"Ride near me, Heinz," and Heinz did as the lady commanded him, and thus they rode further on the narrow woodpath. The trees rustled gently, the chaffinches sang, and sometimes small forest animals glided across the way. Now and then was heard the cracking of breaking branches, as the game hurried into the wood, or a frightened bird flew noisily, and then a deep silence lay over the forest. Again the lady of the castle turned to the hunter and spoke with laughing mouth :
"Let me hear, Heinz, if thou art a wise young hunter:
"Dear Huntsman, I pray thee to tell me aright, What ascends higher than falcon and kite?"
Without thinking Heinz replied: "High mounts the falcon and the kite ascends high. The eagle, however, can still higher fly."
And again spoke Lady Adelheid :
"Dear Huntsman, dear Huntsman, reveal unto me, Is there nothing that mounts still higher than he?"
The falconer thought a couple of moments, then answered : "Surely than all feathered things ascends higher, So glorious, at noonday, the sun's ball of fire."
The Countess nodded approvingly and asked the third time : 'Then do not deceive me, my best beloved one. Does not something mount still higher than the bright sun?"
The falconer's wisdom was now at an end. He looked up at the tops of the beech trees, as if help would come to him from there, and then looked down again on the pommel of the saddle, but remained silent. Then Lady Adelheid reined in her little horse, bent toward the hunter, and softly said : "The sun ascends high in the heaven above. But higher, still higher, soars secret love."
Two woodpeckers with blue wings started up out of the hazel bushes and flew screaming into the forest, in order to relate what they had heard, and by another morning the sparrows, who had their nests under the castle roof, twittered to one another: "Peep, peep, Our Lady's love for the himter is deep."
Yes, that was a happy time for falconer Heinz. He let his hair grow, so that it hung down in golden ringlets to his shoulders, and he wore silver spurs and a heron's feather in his hat, and built glittering castles in the blue air.
He certainly did not receive a castle, but instead a fine forester's house, with antlers on the gable, and fields and meadow lands besides were given him in trust, and there he sat now as forester of the reservation, and when his gracious lady came riding to him he stood in the door and waved a greeting with his hat, then lifted the Lady Adelheid out of the saddle and entertained her with bread, milk and honey.
So passed the summer, the fall and half the winter, when came Shrove Tide. At this time many visitors came from the neighborhood and the Count's castle appeared like an inn. But Forester Heinz sat lonely in his huntsman's home, and only seldom news reached him of the merry life at the castle. At last came a report that was not exactly agreeable to poor Heinz. Lady Adelheid was to marry again, so ran the story, and it sounded in the young fellow's ears like the tolling of a funeral bell.
Then Heinz locked his house door and made his way toward the castle, and as he went murmured all kinds of things between his teeth that sounded not like prayer.
When he reached the foot of the castle hill, where the winding road led upward, he heard hoof strokes and a silvery laugh, that cut him to the soul like a double-edged blade, and down the way came the lady of the castle riding on a white horse, and on herleft a stately knight clad in rich raiment rode on a glossy black steed and looked with sparkling eyes at the beautiful woman at his side.
The young hunter thought his heart would break, but mastering himself, he sat down on a stone like a beggar, and as the pair came near him, he sang :
"The sun ascends high in the heaven above, But higher, still higher, soars secret love."
The proud knight reined in his horse, and pointing with his whip toward the hunter, asked his companion : "What means this? Who is the man?"
The blood left the Countess' cheeks, but she quickly controlled herself and answered: "An insane hunter. Come, let us hasten on. I am filled with fear in his presence."
But the knight loosed his purse and threw a gold piece to the man by the road. Then Heinz cried out and cast himself face downward on the earth. Both knight and lady gave their horses the spurs and rode hastily on.
The hoof beats had long since died away before the unfortunate man raised himself up from the earth. He wiped the dust and dirt from his face, pressed his hat down upon his brows and walked into the forest. Without way or path he hurried along, until night set in. Then he threw himself under a tree, wrapped his cloak around him and sank into the sleep of an exhausted man.
Poor Heinz slept the whole night without dreaming, until the chill of morning wakened him. At once his grief again stood before him and grinned at him like a diabolical spectre.
"Oh, if I could forget 1" cried he. "If I could but forget ! There is a spring, if one drinks of its water, then vanishes all the past from memory. Who will point out to me the way to the spring?"
"Oh I" called a voice near him, "I am familiar with the spring that causes forgetfulness, and with my knowledge will gladly be of service to you."
Heinz looked down and saw before him a young fellow in a tattered black gown, whose toes appeared inquisitively from out his shoes. The one representing himself as <[ vagrant student spoke again :
"The water called Lethe, which induces forgetfulness, springs in Greece. You must travel there and on the spot inquire for the details. But if you would find comfort, then accompany me to the Blue Grape Inn. It lies not far from here.
There the landlady will serve you with the drink of forgetfulness, provided your purse is less empty than mine."
So spoke the vagrant, and Heinz rose and followed him to the forest inn. There both drank together the whole day, and half the night, and when tliey lay socially on the bench by the stove at midnight, Heinz had forgotten everything that grieved or oppressed him. With morning light, however, tormenting memories came again and besides he had a headache. Then he settled his own and his companion's score, made short parting from the vagrant student, and went forth.
"Oh, who can forget !” said he as he went on his way and struck his forehead with his clenched hand. "I must find the spring or I shall certainly become insane."
Near the road stood an old half-dead willow, and on the willow sat a raven, who turned his head toward the lonely wanderer and looked at him attentively.
“niou all-knowing bird," said the hunter to the raven, "thou knowest all that happens on the earth; tell me where springs the water of forgetfulness."
"That would I know myself in order to drink thereof. I knew of a nest of seven fat nutfed dormice, and when I desired to look after the dear little creatures yesterday I found the martin had emptied the nest and left not a piece remaining. And now must 1 think on my own loss wherever 1 go and stay. Yes, who knows the water of forgetfulness I But let me advise you, my friend. Go to the woman in the woods, who knows more than other people, and perhaps also knows the spring of forgetfulness." Then the raven pointed out to the hunter the way to the woman in the woods. Heinz thanked the bird and went on.
The woman who lived in the woods was at home. She sat before her cottage and spun, nodding her white head. Near her sat a gray cat with grass-green eyes, that licked its paws and purred meantime.
Heinz appreciated the old woman, greeted her respectfully and explained his errand.
"I certainly know the spring of forgetfulness," said the woman, "and I will not withhold a drink of its waters from thee, thou poor boy ; but only death is for naught — if thou wilt have a cup of this precious drink, you must first perform three tasks for me. Wilt thou do this?"
"If I can."
"I demand nothing impossible of thee. Thou shalt first fell for me the forest behind my house. That is the first task."
The young fellow agreed to this. The old woman gave him a wood axe and led him to the very spot, Heinz stretched his arms and swung the axe, and with each stroke he made imagined he struck his rival, and the trees sank groaning under the mighty blows, and this pleased him. As evening approached Heinz looked about him for food, for he was extremely hungry. But he had not long to wait ; from the house of the old woman came a maiden, who placed a basket with food and drink by the side of the exhausted wood cutter.
As Heinz raised his eyes he saw a wonderfully beautiful face, framed in golden hair, through which gleamed the last rays of the setting sun. The maiden was the daughter of the old woman in the woods. She looked with gentle glance at the young fellow, and remained standing awhile before him; but as he said nothing she went away.
Heinz ate and drank, then gathered together pine boughs and wood moss for a resting place, laid down and slept a dreamless sleep. But when he awoke in the morning so also was his sorrow awakened.
Then he seized the wood axe and hewed the trunks with such mighty strokes, that the forest resounded afar with them. At evening, when the beautiful maiden brought him food, Heinz did not appear to be as melancholy as on the previous day, and feeling that he should say something to her, remarked :
*lt is a beautiful day."
Thereupon the maiden answered :
"Yes, very beautiful," and nodding assent, turned homewards.
So passed seven days, one after the other, and on the seventh day the last tree was felled. The woman in the wood came, praised the industrious Heinz, and said :
“Now comes the second task."
Heinz must now remove the roots of the trees that the earth might be cultivated and seed and fruit sown. For this he required seven weeks. But every evening after his well-finished day's work, the daughter of the woman in the woods brought him food and sat beside him on the tree trunk, and listened while Heinz told of the world outside, and when he had finished she held out a white hand to him and said :
“ Good-night, dear Heinz."
Then she went home, but Heinz sought his couch and fell asleep at once.
When seven weeks had thus passed the woman in the woods came, examined the work, praised the industrious workman, and said :
"Now comes the third task. It is that you build a house with seven rooms for me from out the felled wood, and when thou hast also finished it, then shalt thou receive a cup of the water of forgetfulness, and canst go whither thou wilt."
So Heinz became a builder, and with axe and saw erected a stately house. The work certainly progressed slowly, for Heinz worked without assistance, but this he did not dislike, for he loved the green forest, and he would have liked best to remain always near the old woman in the woods. He certainly still remembered at times his former sorrow, but it was like one who, having had a bad dream, rejoices in the morning that he is awake. Each evening the daughter of the old woman came to him, and they now sang together hunting songs, and now songs of separation, parting and meeting.
So passed seven months. The house was finished from threshold to gable. On the gable Heinz had fastened a young pine tree, and the maiden had bound garlands of pine twigs and red mountain berries and decorated the walls.
The old woman in the woods came on her crutches, with the cat on her shoulder, to inspect the finished work. She appeared very solemn, and carried in her hand a cup carved from wood, wherein was the water of forgetfulness.
"Thou hast finished the three tasks which I imposed upon thee," said she, "and now comes your reward. Take this cup, and when thou shalt have emptied it of the last drop, then is the past obliterated from thy memory."
The huntsman hesitatingly stretched forth his hand toward the cup.
"Drink!" said the old woman, "and forget all."
"Yes, everything; thy former sorrow, me and "
"And me also," said the beautiful maiden, and placed her hand over her eyes that she might repress her rising tars.
Then the young fellow seized the cup and threw it with powerful band to ihe earth, so that the drink rained in many glittering drops upon the grass, and cried :
"Mother, I remain with thee."
And before he knew what happened to him, the maiden lay upon his breast and sobbed for very happiness. And though the trees went a-blowing and the yellow cornfields round about nodded in the wind, the birds sang in the branches and the white cat of the old woman went purring in a circle round about the happy pair.
Now, I could without great trouble transform the old woman in the woods into a beautiful fairy, her daughter into a princess and the newly built house into a glittering king's castle, but we will remain faithful to the truth and let everything be as it was.
But after all, something wonderful did happen. Where the drops of the water of forgetfulness had fallen on the earth, there sprang up from the ground a dear little flower with heavenly blue eyes. The flower now has spread over all tJie land, and who knows not its name, for them is this story not written.