A Tale Concerning the Restless Fisherman Silvestras

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Beside the pile of secret chronicles squats an old and long-forgotten wine bottle. Its dusty neck is stopped up with a red cork and entangled in sea weeds that smell of fish and are sprinkled with little amber droplets. It is evident from its appearance that it has accomplished no small and insignificant voyage in the seas. If you held up the bottle to the window and looked in through it green glass, you would see a manuscript rolled up inside.

The city hall caretaker maintains that the keeper of a lighthouse found the bottle floating in the sea, and a fisherman who was on his way to Kaunas to sell his flounders took it with him to the city hall square where he passed it on to the snowman. This sounds like a plausible sound explanation; however, it still remains a mystery how that old manuscript came to be written with the same blunt quill that the snowman used.  Perhaps the snowman found that the original fairy tale contained in the bottle had become too damp and, afraid that it might deteriorate, copied it over in his own hand. Or maybe the bottle held the diary that Silvia kept during her long search for Silvestras and our chronicler used it as the basis for this sad tale.

This riddle will probably never be solved, for even the city hall caretaker admits he is unable to figure it out. However, one thing is clear: this wine bottle belongs without a doubt in the chronicles of the city. Therefore, the adventures of Silvestras which are set forth in it are just as unquestionably true as the other tales included in these chronicles.

So, after a short conference, the city hall caretaker and I decided to transfer this document also to our book of fairy tales.

*

In the old days Palanga was not crowded with the brightly painted cottages of summer vacationers and the loud drums of dance bands did not throb in the air over the benches scattered through the pine groves. Only the huts of the fishermen could be seen bobbing like tiny boats in the sand dunes. Salt-encrusted nets hung by the open doors and a little way off could be seen the tar-smeared bottoms of the overturned boats. The tattered tramps who roamed the beach at evening delighted in seeing the peaceful light that came from the windows and smelling the odor of frying smelts. Then, unable to resist it any longer, they dropped in and were always offered a seat near the warm hearth. Losing the urge to travel on farther that day, they would enter into discussions with the hospitable fishermen and tell tales to the eager children.

And in the distance the sea whispered, that endless, unresting and enticing sea. During storms it sang a wild beckoning song (here begins rough translation of missing page 95) and the winds whistled and moaned in the chimneys of the huts, as if they wished to extinguish the fire in the fireplace. Foamy waves crashed on the shore, throwing onto the sand entangled grasses, large chunks of amber and the skeletons of ruined ships. The heavens having cleared up, children ran out to the seashore. Young maidens gathered the amber and sang, filled with an un-understood longing, and the young men, leaving everything behind, walked for a long time under the old bridge, looking into some kind of mysterious distance and feeling the unsettling wind stroking their unruly hair like a brother.

In those old times, long since forgotten by everyone, there stood on top of Birute Mountain – in that very place where there now stands a red chapel – there stood an old castle. [2 sentences skipped] In those old rooms there dwelled a wise king, the ruler of all the fishermen of Palanga and the lord of all the fishing vessels, along with his daughter Silvija.

To the castle came many rulers from faraway and unknown lands to ask for the hand of the princess. The older fishermen gambled at guessing at the identities of the far-away ships, since the gifts that they were bearing shone in the night, and it was easy to mistake those gleaming ships for lighthouses.

As it turned out, the princess didn’t depart with any of those ships. She had fallen in love with the poor fisherman Sylvester, whose small and humble cottage stood greyly by the very side of the ocean across the road from the (end of rough translation) Swedish Cemetery. When Silvestras rowed by the castle on cool nights with his nets full of fish and sang his songs of the sea, Silvija’s cheeks would burn. She would gaze with longing eyes through the dark window into which floated his melodious voice, and her hand would tremble. She wished very much to be able to adorn his meager fisherman’s hut with all the riches she possessed. So one day late in the evening she opened the castle doors which were covered with wine sap, seated herself in a dark boat which smelled of lobsters, and rowed happily over to his hut.

From then on Silvija sewed the fisherman’s sails and mended his nets. During the nights she remained awake by his side, running her fingers through his dark hair and listening to his tired breathing. The starry gems in her cloak, which hung on a bent nail, twinkled as though a small patch of heaven shone through the crude beams of the roof.

In time a son was born to them. On the day of the birth the fisherman sensed that his hut was suddenly filled with peacefulness, and he happily puffed on his pipe as he leaned on the windowsill. However, when he opened the window in the evening, the light from his lamp streamed through it as if it were too great to fit within the walls of the room. The beams spread deep into the sea and the briny sea winds wafted back inside. From then on the fisherman had restless dreams that called him away from home. Blue islands a pale fairy princess wearing a wreath of golden amber appeared to him. In the days following the fisherman often left his room that was full of gay pictures and roamed the desolate sea shore all through the long windy evenings, his mind troubled by melancholy fantasies. He did not know what further happiness might exist but his longing gaze stretched like black ribbons away toward the remote lands of fancy.

*

It was a sweltering summer midday. The drowsy winds floated on the scarcely moving waves and the sea sparkled with myriad colors.

The fisherman plodded along the path from the bridge to the Swedish Cemetery. By the mouth of the Ronze River, which in those days was wide and deep, he heard a strange thudding sound, and, in his interest, he went closer.

A crew of happy and suntanned sailors were pounding in the last nails to finish a light boat. The boat captain was sitting on a log nearby. He wore a white and red striped sweater, and when he caught sight of the fisherman he gave out a loud shout without removing the amber bit of his smoldering pipe from his teeth.

“Where are you sailing to?” asked the amazed fisherman.

“Where?” replied the captain with a bold laugh, putting his hand on his hip. “There’s where we’re bound!” and he gaily waved with his pipe at the sea and the blue waves which rose stormily, foamed and then broke on the shore into glittering beads. “Do you think I know myself?”

The fisherman sat down on a log and uneasily lighted his pipe.

“Just look at how they work!” continued the cheery captain. “Like mad wolves they built the ship in three days as if they wanted to run away from home as fast as possible...and from their peace.”

These words made the fisherman’s heart tremble with foreboding.

“Perhaps you are sailing to the blue isles?” he asked as he sketched something with a twig in the sand. “There where the fairy tale princess lives?”

The captain slowly stood up and took a deep breath of the salty sea air.

“Who knows!” he answered. His voice had somehow become distant and full of yearning. “The sea holds everything, and one can find everything in it: golden fish, alluring mermaids and watery death. The sea is wide,” and here the captain spread his sunburned arms as though wishing to gather the whole ocean in them. “In it you may search for anything, fisherman. Maybe the blue isles are awaiting you in the distance.”

Silvestras’ eyes burned, glistening in the sunlight. He arose and extended his shaking hand to the captain.

“When are you sailing,” he asked.

“Tomorrow at sunrise,” answered the captain. “Do you think that once the ship is finished anything could hold my men on the shore?”

“I’m sailing with you,” the fisherman said in a decisive voice, and something very much like a gleaming but unbearably heavy stone fell from his heart.

*

On that day Silvestras’ room was adorned with wild flowers from the meadows and on the table stood a jar of thick yellow honey. It was exactly a year since the fisherman’s wedding day. Silvija, wearing her most beautiful clothes, had been awaiting his return; when the fisherman came in and sat down on the chair she knelt by him on the floor and placed her head on his knees. Silvestras caressed her collar, which had become somewhat wrinkled, and searched for words.

“Tomorrow I sail,” he finally said, “away with the sailors...out on the ocean.”

The princess raised her astonished eyes and saw how Silvestras’ glances flew out of the room past the clay flower pots and through the nets toward the storming sea.

That evening the fishermen gathered in the hut. Amidst much laughter they drank mead, sang old songs and talked about the fishing. Silvija smiled while she carried about the steaming dishes of food, and everybody was happy. As usual, the old sailor with the crooked nose told the lie about how his boat was once swallowed by a whale; however, Silvestras heard only the distant noise of the storming sea and the wind that whispered behind the windows.

After falling asleep that night, the fisherman had a very fitful dream, and lying awake beside him, Silvija knew that it was not about her that he dreamed and that his sail would soon be raised to catch his dream.

Early in the morning before the dawn broke she awoke the fisherman and accompanied him to the shore where the ship was ready to set sail. The sailors were shouting to one another as they raised the damp sails and they quietly sang the wistful melodies of the sea. The fisherman climbed on deck just as the sun was rising. He waved to the princess, and Silvija cut the line that bound the ship to the shore. The restless wanderers, still singing their songs, sailed away over the foaming waters.

*

They continued to roam the sea for many adventuresome months. They sailed past the bustling harbors, past the rockbound islands of the north, and past the sunny lands of the south where the fragrances of orange groves and the music of guitars drifted out from the shores. Sometimes they met ships from which fluttered bright flags and they greeted the sailors aboard them. The glassy waves whispered around the anchors like large fish. They were tossed by many a dark storm which threatened to send their boat to the bottom, and they took advantage of many a clear midday to swim in the depths of the sea which then seemed bottomless.

However, the times most dear to them were the misty autumn twilights when fine rain fell from the sky like unceasing tears. Then the sad sailors huddled together under the incessant rustling of the raindrops and dreamed about their own warm huts on the distant shore. They would gather around the wheel and talk about home and the timid girls awaiting them there. They would also sing their songs, and when they knocked the ashes from their pipes they noticed that their hands trembled. The helmsman held the wheel on course and they all joked as they sailed on drenched in cold rain and mist.

*

One starry night the ship dropped anchor in the old harbor of Hamburg. All around ships from strange lands swayed like drunkards unable to find their ways home. The turning beacon of the lighthouse gleamed through their masts.

Silvestras and the captain slowly strolled along Great Freedom Street and whistled quietly to themselves while all around them clattered the gay crowd. Old-fashioned lamps shone over the sidewalks, throwing their red light on the tramps and restless vagabonds and on the good monks hurrying to the chapel across the street, on the carefree students and the beautiful women and on the infinite adventures that lurked in the colorful crowd. The more experienced sailors led their young companions through the winding streets of the harbor while the sly tradesmen tried to strike up conversations with them and bargained to pay the top price for their cargo.

Suddenly, from an out-of-the-way tavern, the melodious sounds of a concertina were heard and soon followed by the words of a sad song of farewell sung by sailors who were to sail on the morrow.

“Let’s go in,” Silvestras said dreamily.

They sat down in a corner under a stuffed gray shark. After buying a bottle of red wine, they listened to the song the sailors were singing and with thoughtful eyes glanced over at the sailors’ sad girls. The captain poured himself a full glass and emptied it with one gulp.

“Take a look at those voyagers!” he said after a smile had crossed his face. “They rejoice like children... It’s their last night of farewells... And how their eyes burn! Hear the sorrow that thrives in their laughter.”

He fell to thinking deeply and only the painful concertina music played along the walls adorned with shells, sea stars and big lobsters.

“It’s the same with me,” he finally went on. “I long for home and my Julija all of the time... She eagerly awaits me, I know. But as soon as I return to shore and have spent a few happy days there I am overcome by an irresistible wish to set sail again and not to return for a long time and to again long for home. Ah,” he exclaimed, still unable to forget his troubles, “who knows, maybe happiness exists only to be longed for.” And he joined in singing with his strong voice.

Silvestras lit his pipe.

“For some reason I am reminded of a curious tale,” he said to the captain. “It was told to me when I was very little by my grandmother. On the dusty road not far from the gate of Heaven stands an old tavern. Dead people, after completing their journeys on earth, stop there to rest and to think over their lives and recount their adventures before entering Heaven. They sit there quite a long time, drink wine, just like us here, sing songs and are afraid to travel on the rest of the way to Heaven where in the infinite happiness of that place their longing would subside. And there are wanderers”—here Silvestras’ voice trembled—“there are restless wanderers who, while listening to the tales of adventure, become so lonesome for earth that they give up everything and return to it again.”

“And so?” asked the captain, slowly turning the wine glass between his fingers.

“Haven’t you understood yet? When they return from there, they almost always become sailors,” Silvestras quietly replied.

He paused for a moment and then continued:

“And so sometimes I ask myself, aren’t we the ones who have returned from that old tavern from whose lighted window we could already see Heaven? Tell me, where...where does this longing of ours for the unreachable lands on earth come from? Why are we not satisfied with the happiness which is so esteemed by everybody else?”

And he drank down his wine in one gulp.

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“Take a look at those voyagers!” he said after a smile had crossed his face. “They rejoice like children... It’s their last night of farewells... And how their eyes burn! Hear the sorrow that thrives in their laughter.”

He fell to thinking deeply and only the painful concertina music played along the walls adorned with shells, sea stars and big lobsters.

“It’s the same with me,” he finally went on. “I long for home and my Julija all of the time... She eagerly awaits me, I know. But as soon as I return to shore and have spent a few happy days there I am overcome by an irresistible wish to set sail again and not to return for a long time and to again long for home. Ah,” he exclaimed, still unable to forget his troubles, “who knows, maybe happiness exists only to be longed for.” And he joined in singing with his strong voice.

Silvestras lit his pipe.

“For some reason I am reminded of a curious tale,” he said to the captain. “It was told to me when I was very little by my grandmother. On the dusty road not far from the gate of Heaven stands an old tavern. Dead people, after completing their journeys on earth, stop there to rest and to think over their lives and recount their adventures before entering Heaven. They sit there quite a long time, drink wine, just like us here, sing songs and are afraid to travel on the rest of the way to Heaven where in the infinite happiness of that place their longing would subside. And there are wanderers”—here Silvestras’ voice trembled—“there are restless wanderers who, while listening to the tales of adventure, become so lonesome for earth that they give up everything and return to it again.”

“And so?” asked the captain, slowly turning the wine glass between his fingers.

“Haven’t you understood yet? When they return from there, they almost always become sailors,” Silvestras quietly replied.

He paused for a moment and then continued:

“And so sometimes I ask myself, aren’t we the ones who have returned from that old tavern from whose lighted window we could already see Heaven? Tell me, where...where does this longing of ours for the unreachable lands on earth come from? Why are we not satisfied with the happiness which is so esteemed by everybody else?”

And he drank down his wine in one gulp.

*

One bright morning Silvija sat by her table sewing a garment for her son and listened to the singing of the sea, dreaming of a sailing ship plunging through the foam and sunburned Silvestras laughing among the winds and sun. Then suddenly she heard steps and muffled voices in the hallway and the needle dropped from her trembling fingers.

However, when the door opened in stepped only the king of Palanga accompanied by his servants and bearded advisors. He handed his golden scepter to his elder minister and hung his glittering crown on the nail.

“It has been a long time since I have seen you, my daughter,” he said with a fatherly smile. “I have missed you and I want to see how you are getting along alone.”

He walked around her poor room in his velvet slippers, opened the door of the stove and put a few sticks of wood inside. Then he lifted the lid of the steaming pot, sniffed the odors that arose from it and told the palace cook to continue the preparation of the meal.

“Your room is beautifully decorated,” continued the king, still smiling warmly, and took Silvestras’ son upon his knee. “But I know that it is hard for you. Why don’t you return to the castle, to your room where you lived since your childhood? The old librarian looks after your books and your toys are still waiting for you.”

At this some of the books carried by the old librarian fell from under his arm and he coughed into his hand, wishing to attract the princess’ attention.

But she worked quietly on.

“No, father,” she said, looking at the king who was playing with her son. “I will wait here in Silvestras’ hut and wait for him to return.”

She raised her head and listened to the whisper of the sea:

“How would it be if he were to return unexpectedly and find his room empty and the hearth cold and no one here to welcome him?”

The king said nothing, only smiled goodheartedly, and the servants stood respectfully by the door watching the cook who, in a sudden flash of inspiration, poured salt into the soup and tasted it with a silver ladle.

*

At last the ship of the restless rovers dropped anchor by the shore of the blue islands.

The sea stars slowly floated over the azure water, and red fish anxiously smelled the ship’s hull, letting out silver bubbles from their mouths. It was almost impossible to distinguish the dark poplars, rustling vineyards and the blue amber castle hovering in the distance.

Silvestras and the captain stood in the shadow of the lowered sail and watched the roofs of the fairyland town enveloped in mist.

“Our voyage is ended, for this, it appears, is the end of the earth, “ said the captain. “The kingdom of dreams begins here, and so we must return home. Our chests are already overloaded with treasures. We must take them back where we will give them as gifts to our loved ones.”

Silvestras looked at the island with longing.

“I will not return with you," he said then. “Take all my riches back with you and give them to Silvija... Greet her for me... and I will remain here.”

The captain, still puffing on his never-extinguished pipe, grasped Silvestras by the shoulders in a friendly embrace.

“I understand you,” he said after a momentary silence. “Who ( missing page 105) knows if you will ever return?”

And when the ship raised its sails, Silvestras climbed out onto the shore, while the other sailors leaned on the railing and waved to him.

Then the fisherman approached the blue city, closed in by an amber fence. In the cobwebbed gates stood armed guards, turning spits on which were roasting over a fire hearty slabs of beef.

Silvestras approached closer and began to speak with them. At that moment beyond the gates came the sounds of an elegantly ornamented carriage. Around it clattered riders, blowing trumpets, and inside it sat the fairy tale princess, marvelous and tempting, just like in dreams.

Silvestras shouted her name and wanted to chase after her, but the guards blocked his way. They looked at the fisherman’s clothes, faded from the rain, and began to smile at each other, leaning on their silver spears and glancing at each other with laughing eyes. And they didn’t let the impoverished fisherman into the town.

And so Silvestras settle don the blue isle and began to build a huge palace for the princess. Every day he rowed to the farthest islands and gathered up red coral, marble and gold. On hot days he dove deep into the transparent waters to the sunken pirate ships, where only dolphins and crabs lived. Swimming into the sunken rooms, he pried open the rusted treasure chests and scooped from them their treasures, necklaces and earrings.

The fisherman took his collected treasures to the island and his castle grew. Its rooms grew larger (end of missing page)

and were adorned with more and more marvelous treasures. The castle’s proud towers, as though possessing a peculiar life of their own, pierced deeper and deeper into the dark and empty sky where only frost and night existed. Finally the palace was finished. Bright flags fluttered from the marble towers, and in the shining halls scurried a throng of liveried servants lighting the golden candelabras. Then Silvestras, a purple cloak draped upon his shoulders, returned to the gates of the town accompanied by an impressive entourage and demanded to be allowed to enter.

The guards argued for a long time among themselves and read and reread an order written on an old parchment. Then they called the chief of the guards.

He came forth, all puffed up and austere, not even so much as looking Silvestras straight on the eye.

“The fairyland princess is not destined for you, fisherman of the distant lands,” he said, after having listened to the fisherman’s pleas, and smiled indifferently. “Do you not know that the blue islands are only to be longed for?”

*

It was late at night.

On the mournfully sighing waves sailed a dark ship; the shadowy sails on its mast were heavily flapping and the piercing light of a single candle burned in one of its windows. The ship dropped anchor near the Swedish Cemetery. An old withered hermit came ashore, wrapped in a coarse cloak, and glided in silence toward Silvestras’ hut. The dunes were as though frozen. The white moonlit sand was darkened only by the footprints of the hermit.

The door of the hut slowly opened. The sullen hermit held Silvija in a lulling embrace and carried her out to his ship. All that Silvija took with her was the fire of the hearth, her only treasure, and holding it close to her breast she sailed away on the hermit’s black ship to the rocky northern islands.

*

On that same night Silvestras dreamed for the first time of home. He saw his warm hut bedecked with flowers and on the floor his son playing with toy soldiers. There were his long-abandoned nets and there slept his old boat! Silvija will smile when she sees him; she will make a seat for him by the hearth and place bread and fish on the table. Outside the bees will be humming and the wild green grass on the dunes will rustle in the sun. Once again it will be peaceful as it was before!...

And in his heart an irresistible desire to return home was born. He wanted to be able at last to bury his wind-roughened face in Silvija’s waiting hands. So he left his towering castle and sailed for home.

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It was a misty autumn evening when the restless fisherman Silvestras, full of hope, dropped anchor offshore of the Swedish Cemetery. The dusky sky seemed somehow empty and sad.

Silvestras slowly approached his dark hut. He noticed that the warm glow of the hearth did not sparkle in the windows. Then he opened the door.

It was cold in the empty room.

The fisherman stood for a long while staring sadly at the dark ashes of the extinguished hearth, ands into his throbbing heart there seeped a growing longing for his lost Silvija.

The next day he sailed to the castle of the king and said farewell to his son. Then he descended the stone stairs, which were flecked with foam bubbles resembling the princess’ broken beads, and sailed away in search of Silvija who could nowhere be found.

And he never again returned to Palanga.

Daktaras Kripstukas Pragare (Doctor Scribble in Hell) - copyright Julius Kaupas, Dalia Kaupiene Auguniene
English translation copyright Aldona and Robert Page