Librarian of Alexandria

Síffras and Shúme

Seventeen holy men could only frown in sadness as they watched the spirit drain from her eyes.

"It's not a thing we know how to do," he said. "We can only be a little holy, you see."

So her father—the only one remaining in the home, now, after her mother left—looked on with a hollow heart as, one by one, holy men let themselves out of the tiny cottage atop the distant hill. But before the last holy man had left, he spoke softly and gently to her father.

"There is a way—there always is, of course—but it is not, all things considered, a good way." He signed and pointed to the east where the sun was rising. "Far to the east, in the land where no man will now walk, is a spring where a lone fish1 swims tirelessly. Here, you will find a plant on which grow five white lilies and a single red lily, which you must take and feed to her. She will sleep for five days, and then this will be cured."

The father thanked the holy man and began preparing for the journey. He led his daughter gently by the hand, though she did not look at him and did not speak. He took a horse and walked alongside it, trying to sing softly to himself, but the tune felt hollow in his throat.

At length he came across the last town on the edge of the forest, where a few scattered huts stood among the giant green shapes beyond. A man greeted him, who wore the mask of a wild beast2

"Ho, traveler! Where are you going?"

"Into the woods," he said with sadness. "To find a cure for my darling daughter."

"I once went into the woods," the man said, moving closer. "I was, years ago, mauled by a fearsome creature from the woods. I went in, looking for a way to repair my face, which it had destroyed beyond recognition."

"And did you?"

"I didn't find the face I had lost, but I found the beast's, which suited me better." The father almost believed that it appeared that the mask smiled.

They stayed the night in the man's house and he gave them food and warm coats. The next day, they thanked him and set out for the spring.

When evening came they found themselves at the foot of a tall cliff. An eagle3 above flew in front of them, and when she landed she seemed to them to be a tall, dark woman with a walking-stick.

"What are you doing so deep in these woods, man and girl?" she asked.

"Finding a cure for my daughter," the father said. "She has not improved in five years."

"My children were once ill," the eagle said sadly. "I cared for them for five years, and none of the dozen ever improved. I got them every food and every herb in hopes that they would recover."

"And did they?"

"Yes," the eagle said. "They survived long enough to starve after they all left the nest." The eagle led them up a narrow path in the cliff, and brought them to a cave. The next morning, a fresh hare sat at the mouth of the cave, which they roasted and ate. They climbed the cliff and, at length, came to a glade with a spring and a fish and a lone cottage with a little fire. An old man stood outside with a cane.

"Good day, travelers," he said. "You are deep in the forest, where no men come."

"What are you, then?" the father asked.

"No longer a man," said the old figure. "You seek a cure for your daughter? Then turn and leave, for there is none here."

"I was told there were five white lilies and one red lily here."

"There six white lilies," the old man said, and the father followed his finger and saw he was telling the truth. "You were mistaken. Go back to the land of men."

The father, standing up and trembling, put his foot on the ground. "I refuse," he said.

"Go back!" said the old man, and he opened his cloak and showed that under it, his body was that of a great black owl4. He shouted and rushed towards the father. Quickly, the father drew a knife5 and thrust it into the beast's heart. It cried an unearthly cry, and it fell backwards towards the pond.

The father moved towards the pond and spied the six white lilies. One of them had been stained red by the blood of the old creatures, while the others were still pristine and beautiful. The father took it, blood staining his fingers, and brought it to his daughter, who ate it without looking at him, and then began to sleep on the soft moss.

The father took the body of the old creature and moved it to the edge of the glade, and gave it a burial.

Before he slept, the eagle-woman returned to see that he had made it well. She looked for a long time at the empty hut.

"Did you know the creature who lived here?"

"No," she said, but she refused to speak about it further. She left him several small animals for food and then took flight in a storm of feathers.

On the second day, he slept in the beast's hut as his daughter rested by the edge of the pond. The fish stopped briefly to look at her.

On the third day, the man with the animal's face returned to see him. He brought several pieces of cured meat in a small leather sack. There was a curious look in his eye as he saw the disturbed dirt at the edge of the glade.

"Did you know the creature who lived here?"

"Not well," he said, and his animal nose sniffed. "We spoke years ago." And then he refused to speak further.

On the fourth day, he hunted for food around the glade, but found nothing but leaves and grass and branches. Even the birds seemed silent, and no animals moved among the grass to catch. After a long hungry time, he caught the lone fish in the pond and roasted it. It was more delicious than any fish he had ever eaten. He slept that night in the owl-beast's hut.

On the fifth day, the holy man from his home was standing in the clearing. He held a bag of vegetables in his hand, which he gave to the father. They sat and stared at the daughter in silence for a long time.

"Did you know the owl-beast?" the father asked, after a long silence.

The holy man closed his eyes and looked at the pond. "Yes, though I did not know his name. He was ancient when I was young, and I would see him at the edge of the forest, before he retreated to his sanctuary. We spoke often." He sighed. "It is too bad that he retreated to this distant place."

The holy man left that night. The next morning, after the five days had finished, the father awoke and left the hut to find his daughter standing next to the pond. She turned, and there was a light and joy in her eyes that he had not seen in five years.

"Wasn't there a fish in this pond?" she asked.

"Not anymore," the father said. "There was."

"Pity," she said. "I would have liked company." And after that, she fell into the pond, and when the father rushed to the edge to see her, she was gone, and in the pool was a single rosy fish.

He wept for ten days, sleeping when he could weep no longer and waking to fresh tears. But on the tenth day, the fish looked up and whispered that he had no right to be sad, as his task was accomplished and he could return a happy man.

But he stayed in the forest for years, never leaving the pond's side, and staying always in the little hut that belonged once to the owl-beast. He spoke every day to the fish, though it did not answer often, and often to the eagle, and to the man with the beast's face, and to the holy man.

One day, he discovered he had grown a feather.6

  1. The fish was originally a thúmfoh, or an aquatic creature with webbed fins and an exoskeleton. This is a fish which was common in the forests of northern Zím, though the folktale originated far to the south. The horse was a shékhu or shéthku, which is a pack animal not intended for riding, though some versions change it to other pack animals or omit it entirely. 

  2. The beast varies in different versions of the tale, but it is often given as a hfúkkha, or a southern shéfkel. Another common version features a pwóshas, or hannsakh. 

  3. The eagle is, in the original text, a chentá, a Védash relative of the flying kútul. The rabbit is a virháka, or hfirháke as it is called in Vérdash. 

  4. The owl is a feathered beast called an ossékhnga in Vérdash, and hoshénka in Trináko. 

  5. The blade is specified as a scythe in some versions of the tale, in others, it is a Vérdash shortsword called a yérgal used by light militia but widely available throughout history. 

  6. Vérdash folktales often end with heavy implications rather than the full story, as Hígal folktales do. Some Hígal adaptations of the tale continue the implication until the point when he has become the owl-monster, but this is considered to be contrary to the original intention in the Vérdash tradition.