The Golden Apple

A Story from Osturňa

Translation by Thom Kolton

Copyright © 2021 Thom Kolton

Dedication

Dedication

The translation of this story is dedicated to the people of Osturňa past and present, and especially to my grandparents, Mária Drugáčová and Juraj Vanečko, whose spirits helped me find my way home.

Foreword

Foreword

In 2009, I purchased a log cabin in Osturňa, Slovakia, the very one in which my grandmother was born more than a century earlier. While beginning some much needed renovation work, I had the incredible luck to stumble upon a text written in the local dialect. With the help of both friends and professionals, I endeavored over time to translate the document. Unfortunately, the pages of the original document were so fragile and brittle as to ultimately be deemed unsalvageable by the Historic Documents office in Bratislava. This translated text is unfortunately the only remaining proof of the existence of the original manuscript.

Osturňa, the setting for this story and also where I reside, is a quaint and lovely village nestled in a valley on the Slovak border with Poland. While satellite dishes attest to the arrival of the modern era, as an officially designated Folk Architecture Reserve, Osturňa retains much of its historical look and charm of an earlier time. Like my own home, there are many log houses dating back to the mid-19th century, juxtaposed with replicas of dubious distinction, as well as with some modern brick dwellings.

Unlike the surrounding villages populated by people of Slovak or Polish origin, the village of Osturňa is unique in that it is overwhelmingly populated by people of Lemko Rusyn descent. This group, among whom I count myself, hails from East Slavic tribes and is ethnically more closely related to Ukrainians and Byelorussians than to Slovaks, Czechs, or Poles. The local dialect, a mixture of Slovak, Polish, and Rusyn, reflects a fascinating amalgamation of language and culture that is indeed unique to the village, as is its Greek Catholic heritage. Distantly separated from other Lemko villages in Eastern Slovakia, it remains a mystery how Lemkos came to settle this land so far west.

The village is located approximately 700 meters above sea level in the rugged terrain of the Carpathian Mountains. This vast mountain range traverses six countries, forming a crescent shape through Central and Eastern Europe. Its highest peaks, located in the Tatra Mountains, are a source of pride for both Slovakia and Poland. The climax of the story ultimately reveals a rather unscientific explanation of how this range was originally created. Geologists and the entire scientific community at large should approach this explanation with a healthy amount of well-deserved skepticism.

The characters in the story all possess surnames that continue to exist in the village today. Whether any character was originally based upon a person living at the time cannot be known. What is certain is that any similarity to any living person sharing the surname today is purely coincidental.

The two main characters of the story are famous mythical gods, Pérun and Veles. They existed throughout Slavic culture until supplanted by Christianity in the tenth century. Their identities have slowly been forgotten over time (“like a broken shovel”, as we will later learn), although we are reminded of Pérun’s former stature through numerous mountains in southern Europe bearing his name, and through words such as the Polish word piorun meaning “lightning”. Within the village, thunder marks of Pérun are still found today etched in wood beams or painted on the ends of logs. These marks were originally a notice to Pérun that their wooden house should be spared fire by lightning. Today, however, most do not know the origin of the now purely decorative designs.

Many myths about these gods were passed down through stories from generation to generation, a tradition that unfortunately has greatly diminished in modern times. The following story incorporates many of these mythical references (the eagle, the oak, Pérun’s stone, ball lightning, etc.) into a fantastical history that could never have been. But closing our eyes tightly, we can imagine what might have once been long ago.

The original manuscript was presented as a short story. As an aid to the reader, I divided the story into short chapters, none of which existed in the manuscript's original form. In addition, I supplemented the text with comments and definitions where I believed readers would benefit from further explanation. Finally, the original title Naųózaj śe to staųo (“It really happened”) was changed to better reflect the story's content.

Allegories usually contain a moral to teach the reader a lesson. None was provided in the original text. But perhaps the most compelling lesson here is that hope is man’s greatest strength.

– Thom Kolton
10 March 2021

Prologue

Prologue

The church teaches us that there is but one god, and whose only begotten Son, through His life, death, and resurrection, has purchased for us the reward of eternal life. These are the beliefs we hold today. But this was not always so. In earlier times, our world was a very different place. Our understanding of the supernatural realm was different. Even the very land upon which we live was different. It is difficult to imagine a world in those ancient times that was so dissimilar to our world today. But it was so. Let me tell you the story of how it was once upon a time.

A thousand years ago, the lands around Osturňa were mostly plains densely forested by pine, fir, and spruce trees. It was said that, deep inside this forest where the evergreens ended, lay an orchard of golden apples. The god, Pérun, was the owner of this grove.

Pérun was the god of the sky and earth, and of thunder and lightning. It was he who made the fields grow and who gave warmth to the land. And it was his wife who, when milking her heavenly sheep, caused it to rain upon the earth. Dressed in a flowing white robe with his long white beard, Pérun would ride through the sky in his chariot pulled by two rams, keeping watch over the earth. In exchange for his ministration, the villagers bestowed honor upon Pérun by erecting wooden statues in his imagined likeness, imagined because no one had ever seen him with their own eyes. These statues were always placed at the highest points on the land.

To defend the earth, Pérun kept an arsenal of stone arrows that could turn into thunderbolts, and an ax that, upon hitting its target, would miraculously return to his hand. But above all, his most powerful weapon was the golden apple which, when thrown high into the air, became a destructive fire ball. This weaponry was never used against the villagers, although they were sometimes caught in the crossfire. No, these tools of war were used solely against Pérun's archenemy, Veles.

Veles was the god of the waters and the underworld. On land, the forest was his domain. Veles did not look like a god. From the top of his head sprouted the horns of a ram, and his beard was that of copper colored wool. Instead of legs, he possessed the body of a snake that allowed him to easily slither between the earth and the underworld. A magician full of trickery, he had the power to transform himself into different forms, such as a tree, an animal, or even the wind itself. But when filled with uncontrollable fury, Veles would transform himself into a fearsome three-headed serpentine dragon.

Veles was at times benevolent. For example, he gave the villagers rivers and streams for water, and he carefully watched over the animals, especially the cattle. When people died, Veles would accompany them to his underworld of lovely grassy plains and eternal springs, where fantastic creatures roamed, and where the deceased would help watch over Veles’s own cattle. Yet, also known for his trickery and malevolence, the villagers were fearful of Veles. For they knew that, at any moment and for no reason, Veles could cause drought or disease.

Veles frequently taunted Pérun by stealing cattle, peasants, or even Pérun’s own wife or children. Pérun would retaliate by throwing a stone arrow at Veles that would turn into lightning. Or when particularly angry, Pérun would throw a golden apple high up into the air and, as it began its decent, would turn into a ball of lightning aimed directly at Veles. To avoid being hit, Veles would sometimes hide behind a tree. In these cases, the lightning would instead enter into the ground and remain there, only to reappear after seven years.

But at other times Pérun’s lightning would miss its target altogether and instead hit cattle or even people. There was once a wedding party of six hundred. First the groom and his men were killed, followed by the bride and her ladies, and finally the entire wedding party was killed by this lightning, leaving not a soul remaining to tell of what happened.

At the conclusion of each battle, Pérun would always triumph, having killed Veles. But Veles’s death was never permanent. A true magician, he would transform himself into a serpent, shed his old skin, and be reborn in a new body. So it was that Pérun and Veles battled fiercely several times each year.

In the following story, Pérun and Veles do indeed battle several times. However, it is only a matter of time that their battles ultimately change the landscape on which they fight and the people over whom they quarrel.

Chapter I – Calamity

Chapter I - Calamity

The villagers of Osturňa were very poor. The land was scarcely fertile enough to grow grass for the cattle, let alone potatoes and onions. But farm they did on their long, narrow plots of land, rising early to tend to their flocks and toil in the pastures, working until sundown. Life was hard, but the villagers persevered to maintain their way of life.

One spring, just like every spring when the ground had sufficiently warmed, the villagers set out to plant vegetables that would sustain them throughout the year. The pastureland beyond would soon sprout tall grasses and wild flowers to feed the cattle. After such a cold winter, the sun shone full and bright, warming all within its reaches, and the people were hopeful for a good year. The rains, normally abundant in the spring, however refused to fall. The land became increasingly dry. Cattle, having eaten the stubbles of grass that failed to flourish, moved further and further away until reaching the edge of the forest. A few cows that entered into the forest were never seen again, as Veles would claimed them as his own.

The rains still had not fallen two months after planting, even though the sun grew hotter and stronger with each passing day. The potato sprouts and other vegetables withered in the fields. The land was barren of all but the strongest and most inedible plants, which only the goats would eat. If the rains did not come soon, there would be no harvest in the fall, and all would go hungry over the winter. Many might not survive. The villagers were worried.

“Pérun,” the villagers called out, “our fields are dry. The roots are withering. The cattle have no grass on which to feed! Please send us rain, we beseech thee! Send rain!”

Pérun must have been listening because, within the day, the dogs began to eat what grassy stubble was left on the ground. By evening, clouds had formed to obscure the sky and the rains began, a light mist at first growing into a heavy downpour from the heavens. After several years of nearly catastrophic famine caused by rains that refused to fall, the villagers cheered, knowing that their future was secure for the year. And they foolishly danced around the statue of Pérun in the rain to praise him for his help. The rains continued and the villagers remained happy and hopeful.

But then something happened, or rather, did not happen: the rains failed to stop. For an entire moon cycle, the rains fell harder and harder with each day. The fields, which had been all but barren, became nothing more than muddy traps for hapless cows and sheep. Potatoes and onions rotted in the ground. Cabbage died in the fields. Even the pastureland with its usual hearty grasses and wild flowers failed to flourish. The expected harvest was now ruined and there would be nothing to eat that winter.

One day, Pán Homza said to his wife, “Wife, we are so terribly poor. Our pleas to Pérun for a successful harvest have gone unanswered. Yes, he gave us sunlight to grow our crops. But so much that the plants withered. Then he sent the rains, too late to save the crops, but enough to turn our fields into only mud. So, let us ask Veles for his help.”

The wife, who was busy mending a pair of her husband's trousers, paused and glanced nervously at Homza. Although aware of Veles’s trickery and the great risk her husband proposed, she was as desperate as all the others.

“Surely he can do us no more harm than Pérun has succeeded this year,” she began. “Husband, we have only these three potatoes and a cabbage to last us through the season. Our children are hungry and the sheep are on the verge of dying. I am afraid I am beginning to lose hope,” she confessed, as a sad smile concealed a trembling lower lip.

“I will talk to the other men and we shall go to the edge of the forest to speak with him,” Homza assured her. “If Veles agrees to help, we will pay him what he asks, if it is reasonable, and perhaps the village will be saved.”

“Husband, the Závadky’s, the Harabin’s, the Drugáč’s,” she added, “they are all in the same predicament. I agree we must do something.”

So the man left for the krčma to talk to the other villagers about his plan.

As Homza entered the dimly lit krčma, he saw Pán Jasenčak sitting at a table with his brother-in-law, Pán Kroľak, and his neighbor, Pán Repčak. At another sat Pán Vanečko and Pán Drugáč. Alone at the corner table sat Pán Kušnirák in front of an empty glass. In spite of their dire poverty, the men always seemed to be able to find a few coins for a drink.

After offering a greeting to all, Homza called out to the owner.

“Jano, a beer and vodka!”

Among the men who frequented the krčma, the word “please” seemed to be understood, although Ján was appreciative whenever someone was polite enough to actually say it aloud. Ján began pouring as Homza shook hands and then sat down next to Vanečko.

“Gentlemen,” Homza began, “we are in serious trouble.”

“You are quite wise to point out the obvious,” Vanečko retorted.

“Quiet, Juraj,” said Pán Drugáč to Vanečko. “Remember, this is your friend, not your wife,” he warned.

“Calm down, both of you. We are all upset right now,” answered Pán Homza. “That is why I have come tonight, to talk to you about my idea.”

“Idea?” asked the others. The men approached and surrounded Homza as he spoke.

“I do not think we will survive the winter with our failed crops. What little we have in reserve won’t last a week. If we do nothing, it will be the end of us, of our village.”

The men all nodded in agreement.

“But what about this plan?” slurred Kušnirák.

“Yes, Kušnirák, I am getting there.”

“As I was saying, in order to preserve ourselves, we must take a new course. It is not without danger, I warn you. But I believe it to be the only chance we have for survival.”

“And so…?” asked Vanečko impatiently.

“And so…?” repeated Drugáč.

Homza continued. “Pérun gave us sunlight to grow our crops. But so much that the plants withered. Then he sent the rains, too late to save the crops, but enough to turn our fields into only mud.”

“Yes, we all know this already, Homza. But what do you propose we do about it?” begged Kaprál.

Homza paused for a moment, then spoke softly. “Veles.”

“Veles?” everyone whispered in astonishment.

To even think about Veles was risky, but these men now courted significant danger by pronouncing his name aloud.

“Oh, I for one will not involve myself with Veles,” said Pán Figlár. “He will only trick us and leave us more miserable than we are now.”

“Hej!” shouted some men in agreement.

Homza stared at Pán Figlár for a moment, and then looked around at the other men.

“The terrible trick that Pérun played on us this planting season, it is a trick we might have anticipated from Veles, not from Pérun. But it was not Veles who caused us this misery; it was Pérun. And I believe we must ask Veles for help now, for none will be coming from Pérun.”

“But from Veles?” the men yelled with incredulity in their voices.

“If not from Veles, then from whom?” demanded Homza. “Who is going to help us now? We have no choice but to seek the help of Veles. If he agrees to help, we will pay him what he asks, if it is reasonable, and perhaps the village will be saved.”

No one spoke for several minutes, as the men looked at each other, trying to read the other’s face.

“I agree with Homza,” Pán Vanečko finally declared, “we must at least try.”

“Alright then,” agreed Pán Kosturák, “I am with you.”

With everyone in the same desperate situation, the men all slowly reached agreement. They would meet the next morning and head for the forest.

Chapter II – Hope

Chapter II – Hope

It was well before dawn that the men met on the road. Instead of their usual work clothes, the men arrived in their finest kroj with boots freshly buffed and polished for the occasion. They had to look their best; they were to meet with a god, after all.

Silently greeting each other with a nod and handshake, the men were keenly aware of the import their mission carried that morning. Their success or failure would determine the fate of the entire village. They walked in nearly total silence as they headed towards the forest. The morning sun only hinted at its arriving presence. Once at the forest edge, the men dared take only a half-step inside and cautiously looked around.

“Veles, we beseech you!” Pán Figlár finally called out. “We ask for your help!”

The words fell silently upon the pine needles that lay on the forest floor. Only a light wind gently stirred through the trees, as though the forest itself was taking long deep breaths. The men stood there silently, their hearts filled with both fear and hope. The leader of the group finally spoke.

“My friends,” Pán Figlár began, “I am afraid we have failed to conjure Veles. Let us return home to our…”

“Silence!” came a roar from inside the forest.

The men began to tremble in fear and awe. Pán Drugáč’s legs were visibly shaking. Although the instinct to flee the situation beat strongly in their hearts, the men stood firm. For the fear of death from famine was far more frightening to them than was the presence of a god.

After a few moments, the voice again spoke, this time in a softer but no less menacing tone.

“I was wondering… Now, why is it that you come here today and beseech me?” Veles asked.

“Our dear god, Veles, we come to beseech your help...”

“Your ‘dear’ god,” Veles sneered. “Never before have I been called your ‘dear’ god. I am the god you curse when I ‘invite’ your family into the underworld, or when I ‘borrow’ a cow or horse, or a child. You have only ever cursed me. And now… I am your ‘dear’ god?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” the men exclaimed.

“Well then, I return the affection equally,” Veles offered with false graciousness.

“Dear Veles, how is it we can hear but not see you?” asked Pán Gorel. “Please show yourself.”

“Why, you are looking straight at me, my dear friends. I am here in front of you,” Veles whispered.

“But we see only trees, dear Veles,” answered Pán Lešundak.

“Yes, I am the trees before you,” said Veles, “I am the wind that blows, the magpie that flies above, and the toad that lumbers on the ground below. I am everything around you.”

“How could this be?” the men wondered. Surely all gods had a body, the body of a god to be sure, but a body nevertheless. Although no one had ever seen Pérun either, they could see the bright light above them every day as he rode his chariot across the skies. Surely they would see Pérun's body were it not for the bright light obscuring it. But Veles was telling them that he embodied the forest in its entirety. This was a concept too strange to grasp. Feaful, the men took several steps backwards to exit the forest only to realize that, as they had been speaking with Veles, the forest had quietly grown around them so that they found themselves deep within the woods. The men were now quite afraid.

“What is it that you want?” snapped Veles.

The men looked at each other, each hoping the other would speak for the group. Finally, Pán Drugáč, whose legs shook the most only moments ago, stepped forward.

“Dear Veles,” he offered, “we have no other possibility. We are poor and hungry. Our children and flocks are starving. We will not live much longer in this condition. We beseech you to help us in our plight.”

“We have little food left, dear Veles,” said Pán Vasčura, “barely enough to sustain us now, and certainly not enough to last us through the winter.”

“If you are thirsty, you may drink from my streams,” began Veles. “But I have no food for mortals, you silly peasants. How can I possibly help you?” he asked.

“Franková and Niedzica, they have fared much better than have we,” pointed out Pán Kosturák. “They have a surplus of food to sell, in fact. But we are too poor to buy their food.”

“And you sillies believe that Veles has mortal money to lend?!”

“No, no, dear Veles,” said Pán Kaprál, as his throat choked with frustration and sadness, “we know that gods have neither food nor money, for they need neither.”

Pán Kaprál paused to take a deep breath and fight back tears. Then falling to his knees, he began to sob.

“Pérun has let us down,” Kaprál explained, “and so we came to you with the hope that somehow you would be able to find a solution to our plight. We hoped you would prove yourself a better god than Pérun. We were wrong to have come, and we are sorry to have disturbed you. Please forgive us.”

“Oh!” responded Veles, “So you think I am not a greater god than Pérun? Hmph. Not better than Pérun, you say? Well, I will show you that I am one hundred times better, no, a thousand times better than that dog in the sky! I will find a way to help you. Give me a moment to think.”

The men waited in silence as Veles considered how he could help them.

“You have no money and not enough food,” repeated Veles. “Pérun has failed you and if I do not help, some of you may perish during the coming winter.”

The men all quickly nodded in agreement.

“So...” Veles began, “it seems to me you are hoping for a miracle. And who better to perform a much needed miracle than me, your dear god, Veles?!” he asked proudly.

The men began to smile, understanding that Veles would now help them and that their fears would soon end.

“I know of a miracle that will solve several problems at once, both for you and for me,” continued Veles.

The men's smiles began to broaden even more at hearing this good news.

“Never again will you go hungry,” promised Veles, “nor will you ever again have a care on this earth.”

The men were now beside themselves with both delight and relief at Veles's words. They began calling out “Dear Veles, our supreme god! Veles is our god forever!”

“Calm down, gentlemen,” Veles interrupted, “and let me tell you of this miracle.”

The men quickly fell silent as they awaited Veles's next words.

“To end your mortal problems once and for all,” Veles began, “I offer the following:”

The men eagerly leaned forward with excitement and anticipation.

“… an apple!”

Stunned by Veles's nonsense offer, the men stood there dejectedly and silently stared at each other. Their great hope was now replaced by shock and disappointment.

Chapter III – Salvation

Chapter III – Salvation

The men's hopes for a bright future appeared suddenly dashed by Veles's absurd offer of an apple. How could an apple solve their dire situation? In fact, the men quickly reasoned, the offer was so absurd that they now doubted their own ears. What was it that Veles had just said exactly?

“Did he say 'jabolko'?” whispered Pán Drugáč.

“No, I think I heard him say 'zoloto',” Pán Závacký whispered back excitedly.

“No, no, no,” interjected Pán Tužák, “He said 'chváliť ho!' He wants us to praise him.”

“Oh, you all have potatoes in your ears!” Kušnirák assured the small group. “Clearly he said 'Ja – bol – kôn'.”

The men froze for a second, then began to chuckle at Kušnirák's feeble-minded suggestion in his imperfect Slovak. But this light-hearted moment ended as quickly as it had begun, as the men returned to their very serious situation at hand. They needed to clarify Veles’s offer.

“Did you say 'an apple'?” asked Pán Repčak.

“An apple!” Veles confirmed.

“An apple?!” asked Pán Kovalčik incredulously.

“An apple?!” repeated Pán Lešundák indignantly. “Veles, you insult us!”

“An apple?!” called out several other men. They looked at one another with confusion.

“Yes, an apple!” Veles once again affirmed.

“Dear Veles, we do not understand how one apple would solve our problems,” said Pán Jasenčak.

“Ha ha ha!,” laughed Veles, deep from within. “Ha ha ha!”

“Dear Veles,” challenged Pán Kosturák, “we have come to you with a serious problem. Why do you mock us by offering an apple?”

“Why, do you think I am speaking of just any apple, you silly peasants? I am proposing a very special type of apple, one that will nourish you for the remainder of your days. Have you never heard of a golden apple!”

The men’s eyes grew large with awe. They had heard of these apples that grew in Pérun’s orchard, although none had ever actually seen one. Indeed, both man and beast who ventured into the forest in search of the orchard disappeared forever, for Veles would steal them away into his underworld. But the men understood that to have only one golden apple from Pérun’s orchard would bring sudden and immense wealth to the entire village.

“A golden apple, you say?” asked Pán Rusnák, afraid that he might have misunderstood.

“A golden apple from Pérun’s own orchard?” asked Pán Mudrák in disbelief.

“A golden apple!” repeated Veles.

“A golden apple, a golden apple!” shouted the others.

“Yes, dear Veles, to have only one apple would solve all our problems forever. We would never again go hungry!”

“This would certainly be a miracle of miracles,” said Pán Homza, “But Pérun does not allow anyone to enter his orchard. Are you certain you can obtain an apple from his orchard unseen?”

Suddenly an owl dove into the crowd, grazing Homza on the forehead with its long talons as it sailed through the air. Blood trickled from the fresh wound. Homza grabbed his forehead with his hand and winced in pain. Locating his handkerchief, he pressed it against his forehead until the bleeding stopped.

“Do you doubt my strength and my word?!” demanded Veles.

“No, dear Veles,” the men responded, “We do not doubt you. You will prove yourself the most powerful.”

No one else dared to question Veles's ability, as one bleeding forehead was enough.

“And for me, what do you offer in return?” asked Veles

“We will praise you forever, dear Veles,” offered a villager, as the others joined in, “Praise be to Veles, praise be to Veles…”

“That is very kind,” said Veles, “But I demand from you more than just praise. What else might you offer the most powerful god on this earth?”

The men had not anticipated the need to repay Veles for his help. Pérun would not have demanded any such payment. So the group remained silent, each looking down at their boots, hoping another would provide an answer. Suddenly, Pán Kušnirák let out a squeal as a white horse nuzzled his back.

“I see you have not yet taken my payment into consideration,” said the horse.

The men looked at the horse in astonishment, then at each other. It was true that they had not considered compensation. But money would not be a problem once they received the golden apple.

“We are prepared to offer you one half the value of the golden apple,” suggested Pán Bergsmann, which seemed fair, even though the group had not previously discussed such a thing. Half the value of an apple was still more than the village would ever need. Bergsmann looked around with the hope of support from the others. No one disagreed.

“Half the value?” laughed Veles, “Ha, you fools! Ha! What need would I have for mortal money?”

The men now felt foolish, for it was true that a god needs not gold. But they could think of nothing more to offer, for they already had nothing. They slowly realized that this had been a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one at that. The men were so ashamed that they could only stare down at the ground. Finally, Pán Rusnák spoke out.

“Dear Veles, it is true that we have nothing of value to offer a god. We have come ill-prepared to ask for your help. We can offer nothing, for we have nothing. We should just return to the village and to our fate. We beg forgiveness for having disturbed you in your home. We pray you our sincere apologies and bid you farewell…”

“Silence!” Veles again roared, adding a sweet and affectionate “please” at the end.

“Give me a moment,” said a toad as it lumbered by. “There just might be something you can offer in return. I must carefully consider this,” came from the magpie on the branches above.

The men stood silently while awaiting Veles’s demand.

Sweet moments in life are fleeting, while difficult moments can painfully sustain themselves. The period of waiting to hear Veles's demand seemed to last a hundred years. Finally, Veles spoke.

“Even though you previously cursed me,” Veles slowly began, “I see that you come to me for help in time of great need. So I now understand that our relationship was never truly fouled, but only one of a simple misunderstanding.”

The men nodded in agreement.

“I will therefore help you and, in return, my demand is a simple one:”

The men stood there warily, afraid of what trick Veles might try to play upon them.

“Each and every day,” began an approaching goat, “when you awake, you will be joyful to have another day. After having toiled in the fields all day, when night falls and you grow tired, you will be thankful to have had that day. This is my request.”

The men looked at each other with astonishment, relief, and happiness.

“Do I believe my own ears what I am hearing?!” cried Pán Brejčak. “Veles asks for nothing but our own happiness!”

“Dear Veles,” asked Pán Rusnák, “is our understanding correct? You ask only for our own happiness?”

“Yes, gentlemen, you understand correctly. It is most important to me that you be happy,” answered Veles.

“Dear Veles, we misjudged you, but now we see your true spirit,” said Pán Repčak. “Yes, we will do this. And we will honor Veles forever, for you are truly a great god!”

“But how will we be able to prove both our joy and thanks to you?” asked Pán Vaščura.

“I will see it in your faces, I will hear it in your voices, and I will feel it in your hearts,” answered the wind.

Chapter IV – The Plan

Chapter IV – The Plan

The men grew giddy with delight as they considered the prospect of obtaining a golden apple from Pérun’s orchard. Their smiles were broad and open, exposing gaps between missing teeth.

“To obtain an apple from Pérun’s orchard will be no easy feat,” warned Veles. “I will require your help. Are you with me?”

“Yes,” the men answered in unison, “yes, we will help you in any way we can. Please tell us how.”

A magpie circled high above the trees while the men stood there quietly awaiting instructions as Veles weighed his options. Finally, the magpie let out a long and loud screech from above. Still circling the men below, it began to sing out.

“I have a plan! A wonderful plan! A glorious plan! The plan of all plans! I have a plan!”

And to punctuate its pride at arriving at such a clever plan, the magpie anointed those below with its moist droppings.

The men stood there for a few impatient moments, wiping their foreheads clean and wondering how many indignities they would have to suffer under Veles in order to save the village. One man finally spoke out.

“Well, what then is the plan?” asked Pán Rusnák timidly.

“Yes, the plan…” began Veles, “The goal is to divert Pérun’s attention away from his orchard. Therefore, tonight I propose we hold a celebration, a feast in Pérun’s honor. A celebration will distract him long enough so that I may enter the orchard undisturbed – and you shall have your apple!”

“But Veles,” reminded Pán Závadá, “tonight is the night we honor you, and when you permit our ancestors to return for a visit.”

“Yes, you are quite right! Do not be alarmed. Your ancestors will indeed return tonight, and they will help in the festivities. What better way to honor me than to help take part in this…small ruse!”

“Now,” continued Veles, “let us plan the feast!”

The men appeared hesitant, for none had anything to offer worthy of a celebration.

“A celebration, a feast… But with what?” Pán Rusnák asked innocently. “We have almost nothing.”

“Celebrate with whatever remains,” suggested Veles.

“Scour your home for food. Clear the komora of all that is edible, scrape the sušek down to the wood, milk your cows and sheep until they are dry. Retrieve those few bottles of pálinky you have hidden and bring them! In short, cook and feast as though it is your last night on earth!”

The magpie seemed to let out a loud laugh, which made the men feel uneasy. But they quickly refocused on the plan at hand. The horse now reappeared.

“Drugáč,”, it asked, “you have three potatoes?”

“Hej,” he responded affirmatively.

“And what else is there?”

“A cabbage and two onions.”

“Good, add that together. And…?”

“I have some beets and onions and celery root,” offered Pán Repčak.

“I have kasha and some barley, and a small slab of bacon,” added Pán Lešundak.

“Good! Add those, too!” And… Pán Brejčak?”

“I have…” he slowly began, hesitating on the final end of the sentence, “a piglet.”

The other men glared at Brejčak, as none were aware of this piglet.

“Good!” said Veles. “I want you to cook and share all the food you have remaining to celebrate your happy future. This will be how you honor Veles tonight… During this celebration, be sure to offer a goodly amount of spirits to Pérun so that he may sleep tranquilly. And under no circumstances must you utter my name.”

The men all agreed.

“Once Pérun is asleep and all is quiet,” Veles continued, “I will sneak into his orchard and pick the most beautiful golden apple that hangs on the trees. In the morning before the sun appears, you will assemble all the villagers here in the forest. I want to see everyone’s joy in accepting the apple, and we will continue the celebration.”

The men’s smiles grew a little wary, for it was well known that every person and thing that entered the forest never returned.

“But what if everyone comes to the forest and you do not permit us to return to the village?” asked Pán Glevaňak.

“I permit your return today. Why would I not permit it tomorrow?” asked Veles. “You are now my dear, dear friends.”

The men quietly discussed this among themselves. Why would Veles risk the fury of Pérun by stealing an apple, they reasoned, unless he intended to turn it over to the villagers as agreed? He had no need of a golden apple himself and, if caught by Pérun, he could be killed. Veles must therefore be telling the truth. On the other hand, Veles was well known for his inclination towards trickery. The men could not risk losing the entire village to Veles. So they formulated a plan to carry concealed axes with them in the morning as a precaution. If Veles refused them leave, they would cut down a swath in the forest until they reached pastureland and were free.

Veles, on the other hand, already had his own plan. He knew the apples were golden not because they were made of gold, but because they were made of fire and lightning. In the morning when the villagers arrived, he planned to throw the apple into the crowd, where it would explode and kill each and every one. Afterwards, he would accompany the eternally “joyous and thankful” villagers to his watery underworld where they would help watch over his cattle for eternity.

Gleeful at the prospect of saving the village, and oblivious to the alternate plan that Veles had laid out, the men thanked Veles for his great generosity and turned to leave, only to discover that they were already standing on the village road. When they turned back toward the forest, it was far in this distance. The men raced home to tell their wives.

Chapter V – Celebration

Chapter V – Celebration

Pán Homza was the first to arrive home. Throwing open the door and jumping over the raised threshold, he was so excited that he could barely catch his breath.

“Hanka!” Homza finally called out from the šina. “Hanka! Hanka!”

“This will make at best one small loaf,” Hanka said aloud to no one, as she scraped the last of the grains from the sušek.

Hearing sounds from above, Homza lept up the ladder to the attic.

“Hanka,” he began excitedly, “we just came back from the forest and spoke with Veles!”

“What happened to your forehead?” inquired his wife as she stood up.

Having already forgotten about his wound, he touched his forehead with his hand and grimaced once again in pain.

“Oh, it’s nothing” said Homza, as he quickly changed the subject. “Hanka, our problems are solved!” he said excitedly, grabbing his wife's shoulders and holding her tightly. “Veles is going to give us a golden apple from Pérun’s orchard. We will be rich! We will be able to buy all the food we need! We shall never again go hungry, Hanka, never again! Never again!” he repeated.

Homza pulled his wife close and gave her the same kind of kiss he had given her many years prior when she was but fourteen and he twenty-nine, where they discovered love together for the first time. Then, taking his wife’s hands and causing the grain to fall back into the sušek, he began to dance.

“Husband, I do think that hit on your head has made you crazy,” Hanka said.

“I am only crazy for you, Hanka!” he laughed giddily as he continued his dance.

“What are you talking about?” demanded Hanka. “Were you all day in the krčma?!”

Hanka sniffed about her husband’s face, detecting nothing.

“I’ve not had a drop; I swear it, my beautiful wife. We men went to the forest this morning and took one-half step inside. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by deep forest. There, we spoke with Veles and told him of our plight. He turned himself into a tree, a horse, a magpie, an owl, a toad; all sorts of fantastic things.”

“I think the stress of our situation has finally driven you mad,” declared Hanka.

Homza continued excitedly. “He promised to take a golden apple from Pérun’s orchard tonight and to give it to us tomorrow morning before dawn. The whole village will be wealthy!”

“Mária,” Hanka called out down below, “prepare the bed and a cold towel for your father.”

“Yes, Mother,” came a voice from the chyža.

“Wife, I am fine,” he assured her. Calling downstairs, “Mária, ignore your mother. I am quite fine.”

“Wife, but we must make a celebration tonight. We will cook everything we have to eat!”

“Celebrate? With what?” Hanka asked. “A small bread, perhaps? Two onions, a tiny piece of dried pork fat? That is all we have left, my husband. After this there will be no more food.”

“Yes, tomorrow we will have plenty of food. With one golden apple, the entire village will be wealthy. We shall never again go hungry. Veles promises it.”

Hanka shrugged her shoulders skeptically. She remained skeptical as she once again scraped together the remaining wheat grains. She was still skeptical while grinding the wheat into flour, and remained so while talking to her sister, Mária, next door and then to Pani Jasenčaková across the way. But as the wives gathered outside together and learned that their husbands shared the same story, the women’s skepticism slowly faded first into cautious belief, then into joy.

“Is it true our families will not starve?!” demanded Pani Šimšajová.

“Nor the livestock?!” added Pani Pavliková.

“We will soon be wealthy!” Pani Lazaráková shouted with excitement as she shook her raised hands towards the sky.

Unlike the preceding weeks where examination of the komora and its shrinking store was met with dread, the women that day were happy as they prepared food for the feast. Ingredients began to almost magically appear. From behind a storage chest, Mária found dried poppy pods that had long since fallen, the seeds of which were now being cooked in butter and sugar for poppy seed cake. In the back of the pivnica, the children found a bucket of potatoes, some celery root and a few carrots. Even the animals seemed giddy with excitement, as all the chickens laid an egg that day and the cows produced five liters of milk each. Unfortunately, Baran, the old ram whose usefulness had long since passed, was not quite so giddy as Pani Pavliková offered a short prayer to Pérun before ensuring Baran's usefulness one last time. This would surely be a celebration to remember!

By afternoon, the delicious scent of foods cooking on the stove permeated the air. And for the first time in many months, one could hear the sound of women's voices singing in their kitchens as they made preparations. Within a few hours, food began emerging from each household.

Pani Šimšajová was the first to present a large communal bowl of sour cabbage and sausage soup, along with a freshly baked loaf of sour rye bread. Not to be outdone, Pani Lazaráková followed right behind with a heavy pot of ham and bean soup, with pink pieces of ham seeming to float on top. Her daughter trailed behind with a large plate of pirohy stuffed with potato and cheese, and topped with sour cream and diced bacon pieces. Those nearest the table expressed their approval with sounds of “ooohs” and “ahhhs.”

Pani Penxová arrived with a plate of bryndzové halušky. She fretted that her offering was not as large as the others, although no one else seemed to take note. Ever since her husband's passing, Pani Penxová was considered poor even by the meager standards of Osturňa. But she was well loved and respected throughout the village, and the fact that she was able to provide any dish delighted the others.

“Alžbeta,” Pán Lešundák commented, “you know this is my most favorite dish in the world, and you make the finest! Did you make this all for me?!” he joked.

Pani Penxová gave a modest smile and bowed slightly in thanks for the compliment.

Next to arrive was Pani Rusnáková, known for her excellent skill in the kitchen. She approached the table and proudly presented a large pan of her knes, a delicacy known only to the villagers of Osturňa. Before she had even finished slicing the knes into squares, Pán Potok tried to grab a portion for himself. Pani Rusnáková quickly delivered a well-deserved slap on the hand.

These dishes were just the beginning. Pani Mudráková removed the lid of her pot to reveal a bounty of steaming halupky while her sister, Pani Smoleňaková, held out a large platter of pigs knees served on a bed of cooked cabbage. There was already scant room on the table when Pani Potoková arrived with two roasted chickens and a bowl of buttered green beans. But plates were rearranged to make room for Pani Glevaňaková's garlic-infused leg of mutton that received many compliments. For dessert, Hanka Homzová had prepared several poppy seed rolls and a large platter of šúľance.

“Jano, bring out another table from the krčma,” yelled Pán Glevaňak, “We've run out of room here!”

Indeed, there was already more food on the table than one could have imagined, and more and more dishes kept appearing as villagers arrived. Everyone was in a festive mood even before the alcohol was delivered. So it was no surprise that applause broke out when Pani Brejčaková arrived with a roasted suckling pig surrounded by cooked buckwheat and carrots. For it was understood in the village that, like saints, pigs are revered more in death than in life.

Finally, as the sun began to set and the preparations were complete, the villagers gathered around the table. It was time to begin the feast.

Chapter VI – A Toast

Chapter VI – A Toast

Only hours earlier, the entire village had been sad and afraid of what their future held. But now, with a table full of delicious foods and bottles of spirits, people forgot their troubles. They were certain now that there future would be bright.

“One moment, Martin,” yelled Mudrák, as Pán Kroľak reached for a roasted chicken thigh.

“Before we begin our celebration,” announced Pán Mudrák, “I think it is fitting to first offer a toast!”

“Careful!” called out several men, warning Pán Mudrák against saying Veles’s name. Mudrák responded by signaling with his hand that he understood.

“Our lives are not easy,” began Pán Mudrák.

Some of the villagers murmured in agreement.

“We must work hard every day just to survive,” continued Pán Mudrák.

“Yeah, except that Drugáč,” Pán Lazarák chimed in, “who I don't believe worked a day in his life!”

The crowd all laughed at this comment, except for Pán Drugáč who sat there with a scowl on his face. Drugáč appreciated a good joke, but not one at his expense.

It's true that Drugáč's plot of land was smaller than most, which demanded less work but was also less productive. On the other hand, Drugáč was the only person in the village who could read – a little – and also play the violin. These skills had allowed him to barter for necessities over the years. Unlike the other villagers, Drugáč understood that some work required not just muscle and dirty hands, but also a certain amount of talent and mental ability. And yes, Drugáč suspected that Lazarák, among others, was jealous of his talents.

“Michal, I am only joking with you,” said Pán Lazarák. “We all know you work... on occasion.”

Again the crowd broke into laughter.

“Shut up, Lazarák,” warned Pán Barčak, “or there won't be any music during the feast.” Then turning towards Pán Drugáč, “Just ignore this ass, Michal. We appreciate all that you do.”

“Alright! Alright! Let's settle down for a moment” said Pán Mudrák.

After a pause, he began again.

“As I was saying, our work is difficult... And yet, we manage to find the strength every day to continue. We always hope for a better tomorrow. That day will come, I promise you.”

Mudrák again paused and looked knowingly at the crowd, nodding his head and grinning ear to ear. He could barely control his excitement about what was to happen that night. He continued.

“But until then, we must be thankful for all that we have.”

The villagers all whispered in agreement.

“Therefore, on this special day,” Pán Mudrák continued, “I offer a toast to our dear god, Pérun.”

And with that, he emptied a glass of good plum brandy onto the roots of a nearby oak, for the oak tree was Pérun’s perch and this was how a toast to Pérun was customarily offered.

The villagers raised their glasses in unison. “To Pérun, to Pérun,” they cheered before gulping down their libation.

The celebration now began in earnest. As was the custom at the commencement of any feast, Pán Drugáč held up his violin and began to play the Osturňa anthem. The Závacká sisters began the first verse, thereafter joined by the other villagers in song:

Hej Ųosturňa!
Ųosturňa ųokruhve miestecko
Puste mi frejeřa
Boli mje serdecko,
Puste mi frejeřa
Boli mje serdecko.
      ⋮

The anthem finally over, Pán Drugáč began to play a merry song as the villagers tore into the pots and bowls and platters of food. Some of the villagers had brought their own bowls and knives, while others chose to eat from the communal bowls or with their fingers. Regardless of how they ate, eat they did! And, when not eating, they danced and sang. And drank! And as the celebration continued, drinks were offered in the name of Pérun over and over again, until the roots of the oak were nearly soaked with drink. Considering the amount of alcohol poured onto these roots, surely even Pérun would be quite sleepy by now.

It was already late into the night when the villagers were sated and could consume no more. It seemed that many ancestors must have come to visit during the feast, for there was scarcely a morsel of food or a drop of alcohol left. Pán Kušnirák, who himself had already drunk enough for ten ancestors, must have had several visitors, for he spent much of the evening talking to invisible people across the table from him.

In a single moment of dim clarity, Pán Kušnirák announced that he would offer one final toast. With only one glass of spirits remaining, he held it up to the oak tree and, steadying himself with one hand on the side of the oak and slurring his words a little more than usual, he offered a final toast.

“On this very special day,” he began, “we, the citizens of Osturňa, offer up our sincere thanks and praise to our dear, dear god, Veles.”

The gatherers gasped in horror.

“I mean, Pérun,” Kušnirák quickly corrected himself.

“To Pérun! To Pérun!” everyone offered nervously.

But this slip of the tongue did not go unnoticed by an eagle that had perched itself atop the oak. It looked down for a few moments before flying off in the direction of the orchard.

“You stupid ass, Kušnirák, now you’ve done it,” warned Pán Barčak.

“You may have ruined it for all of us, damn you,” cursed Pán Kaňuk.

Pán Kušnirák stood there looking sheepish, for Veles had warned them not to mention his name on this night.

“I hope Veles got the apple already,” Pán Kovalčik said aloud.

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” the group shouted.

Had Veles already completed his deed? Was he back safely in the confines of the forest? Would the villagers be rich or paupers in the morning? Only time would tell. The villagers would not sleep easily that night.

Chapter VII – The Horse

Chapter VII – The Horse

Pérun rode his ram-pulled chariot through the skies. As he travelled over the dense forest, all appeared calm. But as he neared the orchard border, he noticed something quite out of the ordinary. Just inside the orchard walked a beautiful white horse. Pérun quietly landed his chariot and watched in silence as the horse cautiously walked between the trees, eyeing the beautiful golden apples that hung there.

“Ahoj, beautiful horse!” Pérun finally greeted the visitor.

The horse, startled, reared up on its hind legs, then began to dart in the direction of the forest.

“Calm yourself, beautiful horse,” Pérun said gently. “I mean you no harm. I am the god Pérun, protector of this orchard.”

Believing the situation free of danger, the horse slowly began to calm itself. After a few moments, it stopped and began to stare at Pérun as though it had never before seen a god.

“Why have you come here to my orchard?” asked Pérun.

“Why, I… I…,” stammered the horse, “I was walking through the forest looking for grass to graze when I realized I had lost my way. With the forest so dense, I could locate neither sun nor moon for direction. When I saw the clearing, I entered in order to gain my bearings,” explained the horse.

“Oh, you must be very careful in the forest, horse,” Pérun warned. “The forest can be a great danger to anyone who enters, especially a horse as beautiful as you. It is a wonder that Veles did not already see you and steal you away for his own.”

“Steal me away?!,” said the horse with surprise, “I was unaware of such danger. I am a simple horse with little knowledge outside my own pasture. I suppose I must learn to be more cautious in the future.”

After a pause, the horse continued.

“I have been traveling for a considerable time and am quite hungry. If you would be so kind as to permit me just one apple to help me along on my return journey home, I would be ever so grateful.” said the horse.

“It would be my honor to share my bounty with you, horse,” answered Pérun. Looking over his orchard, Pérun pointed to an apple.

“There, horse, that apple is the largest and most perfectly shaped in the entire orchard. You may take that one.”

“Thank you. You are a truly kind and generous god,” said the horse as it gingerly reached up and gently bit the stem to release the apple from the tree. The horse then gently lowered it onto the ground below.

“Now please eat and enjoy! You must regain your strength for your return journey home,” instructed Pérun.

“Thank you, but it will be better to save the apple for later, in case my journey homeward is further delayed,” said the horse. “I’ll just carry it until I am ready to eat.”

“Certainly after such a long journey, you surely must be famished. Please eat the apple and I will give you another for your return home,” offered Pérun.

“Thank you for your generous offer,” began the horse, “but one apple will suffice. I will carry it with me and eat it when…”

“Eat!, commanded Pérun, “Bite into it now! Bite into the apple!”

The horse looked confused and wary, unsure of where to turn or what to do. This was a cruel joke for Pérun to play upon the horse, for biting into the apple would cause it to explode with fire and lightning, killing the horse instantly. But Pérun was a kind god and would never hurt a lost horse, that is, were the horse an actual horse. But in his haste, Veles had forgotten to fully transform himself, leaving the end of his tail to still appear as that of a snake’s. Pérun had recognized this from the very moment he spied him in the orchard.

The horse let out a nervous whinny as it began to panic. Leaving the apple on the ground, the horse started to dart around, first to the left, then to the right, before quickly running towards the forest.

“Veles!” Pérun yelled out to the horse, “You will disturb me and my orchard no longer! Prepare yourself for the consequences!”

Pérun drew an arrow from his bag. Aiming carefully, he let it fly in the direction of where Veles had fled. As it flew through the air, the arrowhead glowed a bright white light and its tail turned to lightning. It flew just above the tree tops in search of its target.

Veles, who possessed the power to transform himself into a tree or the wind, would have already done so were he not so preoccupied with trying to dodge the arrow that followed him. But he could not chance one moment. He continued to run through the forest, not certain when he would be able to rest. As he ran, he turned his head upward to see an arrow rapidly descending and directly aimed for his head. This caused him to rear up on his hind legs, which in fact saved his life. For the arrow narrowly missed him and instead hit the ground with a great crashing sound before boring into the earth below.

Veles continued running through the forest as additional arrows flew, some hitting near his feet, others hitting the trees. Nearing the edge of the other side of the forest, close to the village, Veles emerged, still camouflaged as a white horse. He needed to quickly turn himself back into his original form if he were to reach the safety of his underworld. But before he could, Pérun shot one last arrow, hitting the horse’s left temple and stopping him instantly. The carcass fell heavily onto the pastureland. The land shook mightily for several moments until a stillness finally settled on the land.

After a short while, Veles emerged from the horse carcass in the form of a snake and descended into the safety of his underworld. The villagers came out to investigate what had happened. Unaware that the horse carcass had been Veles, but knowing that Veles had somehow been involved, the villagers were beginning to lose hope.

“Well,” offered Pán Glevaňak, “that thing will start to smell tomorrow. How are we going to bury such a large horse?”

The night sky brought with it a peaceful stillness. The world seemed to return to normal. Clouds dissipated to reveal a magnificent moon that cast shadows wherever it shined. It was so bright, in fact, that even the birds were already beginning their morning vespers.

Chapter VIII – The Lynx and the Toad

Chapter VIII – The Lynx and the Toad

In Pérun’s orchard that same night, a toad emerged from under a bed of leaves and slowly lumbered a few feet forward to catch the light of the moon. Perhaps there would be some insects nearby waiting to be devoured. The toad yawned and slowly took another step forward when, suddenly, a lynx jumped in front of him, only inches from his face. The toad’s eyes grew wide, for he knew he had only moments to live.

“Hello, toad!” said the lynx. “Did I frighten you? I’m sorry if I did!”

Obviously startled and frightened, the toad tried to gain its composure.

“Yes, yes, you did indeed startle me,” answered the toad. “It is not often that a lynx jumps in front of me like this. In fact, it has never happened before.”

The lynx and the toad eyed one another suspiciously.

“Are you planning to hop away now?” asked the lynx.

“I do not ‘hop’,” insisted the toad. “Frogs hop; toads lumber.”

The lynx circled around the toad, carefully inspecting it before returning to her original position.

“I am hungry, toad, and thinking about my morning meal. I’ve never eaten a toad before. But you look fat and delectable. Will it frighten you more to learn that you will be my next meal?” asked the lynx.

“Well no, not really, lynx. You see, I possess these poison sacks right here, just behind my eyes” the toad replied, pointing with a long finger towards his temple. “When I am frightened, I release these poisons that will not only make me taste very bad, but which will also make you quite sick,” answered the toad self-assuredly. “I cannot control this; this is my natural defense. So you should find me to be quite unappetizing.”

“I see,” said the lynx as she approached the toad until they were eyeball to eyeball. “So perhaps you would be a poor choice for my morning meal. And, to be quite honest, before I came upon you, I had been thinking about eating a sparrow this morning. They are so delicate and delicious. But…”

The lynx sniffed the toad’s head for a moment.

“I do not understand something, toad. I frightened you a moment ago when I jumped out at you. You said so yourself. And since I frightened you, you would have released some poison from your eye sacks, that being your natural defense. Yet my nose detects nothing odiferous.”

The lynx once again sniffed the toad’s head, breathing in deeply.

“Nothing,” said the lynx, exhaling. “Is it possible that your poisons have no perceivable scent?”

The lynx then stuck out her rough pink tongue and gently licked the toad’s wart-covered forehead. She smiled.

“You said that the poison would make you taste bad. And yet, my tongue detects nothing unpleasant. Quite the contrary…”

The lynx took another long lick across the toad’s head. “So, how is it that I neither smell nor taste any poisons that you claim to release when frightened?” she asked, as she began to lick her lips.

The toad was now feeling quite a bit less self-assured than a moment earlier. He quickly began to consider his next action. Were he to reveal his true identity to the lynx, Pérun might discover this and try to kill him. But if he did nothing, he would risk being eaten by the lynx. Deciding the immediate possibility as a potential meal was far worse than some future discovery, the toad began to explain in a whispered voice.

“It is true, lynx, I possess no poison sacks. I am not a true toad. I am a god who has transformed himself into a toad. This is why I do not have the putrid poisons that would normally render me inedible.”

“Ah, a god! So you are Pérun?” the lynx asked inquisitively.

“No! Better! I am Veles, god of the underworld, the giver of waters. It is from my streams that you drink. But should you try to harm me, I will turn myself into a brown bear and I will eat you instead.”

“Oh!” exclaimed the lynx. “In that case, I will not attempt to eat you. I would not like to be devoured by a bear. In any case, I would never attempt to eat a god, especially one who provides me with clear cool water from the streams that flow here. You are therefore quite safe with me here, Veles.”

“Thank you, lynx,” replied Veles. “Now may I ask you for your assistance? I require a golden apple from one of these trees in the orchard. Would you be so kind as to climb up a tree and obtain one for me? I then ask that you carefully place it upon my back so I may carry it away with me. But be very careful. Should the apple fall to the ground, it could explode and kill us both.”

“Yes, I would be honored to help you, Veles,” said the lynx, as she surveyed the orchard. “And I shall be very careful,” she added.

The lynx began her ascent up a perfectly formed tree, careful not to disturb the branches holding the golden fruit. She saw many golden apples hanging from the tree, each lovely in its own way. But then she spied one golden apple that was a perfectly formed shape and with a beautiful glow.

“I shall choose this one, Veles,” said the lynx, pointing to her selected apple. “It is a little far, but I believe I can reach it.”

Gripping the tree trunk with her hind legs, she placed one paw gently on a branch and slowly inched her other paw closer and closer to the apple, careful to avoid shaking the branch.

“I am almost there, Veles,” she said, as her paws neared the apple.

The lynx made a final reach for the apple with one paw. But with no thumbs, she was unable to grasp it. Instead, the apple twisted on the stem and, in an unfortunate moment, released itself and began to fall to the ground.

The toad and lynx both let out screams as they watched the apple fall from the tree, realizing the doom that awaited them. But just before the moment the apple hit the ground, a hand scooped it up.

The toad and lynx both looked up.

“Lynx, what are you doing in my tree?” asked Pérun. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“No, I did not mean to do so,” said the lynx. “It’s only that Veles here requested an apple and, as he is the giver of waters, I could not refuse him. I am very sorry.”

Pérun looked at the apple, then at the lynx, and then at the toad.

“Veles 'the toad' requested a golden apple?” asked Pérun with some amusement.

“Yes, that’s right. But Veles is not really a toad. He is a god.” Turning towards Veles, the lynx said, “Isn’t that right?

At that moment, Veles had wished he were a frog so that he could quickly hop away. But he was not a frog, only a toad. And toads cannot hop; they can only lumber.

“Veles, Veles, Veles” repeated Pérun as he picked up the toad in his hands, “You not only almost had yourself killed, but you would have taken this kind and beautiful lynx with you.”

Cocking back the arm that still held the toad, Pérun said, “Now Veles, fly like the wind to your home and do not return.”

Before Veles had a chance to turn himself into the wind itself and disappear, Pérun threw the toad high into the sky, out of the orchard and beyond the forest until it landed in the pastureland near the dead horse. It fell with such force that the toad, too, was now dead.

A few moments later, Veles could be seen extracting himself from the toad corpse and burrowing towards home. The villagers heard a loud noise and ran out to see what had happened.

“First a horse, now a toad” said a confused Pán Barčak, surveying the pastureland. “What should we expect next to arrive?”

Chapter IX – Deceit Concealed

Chapter IX – Deceit Concealed

The villagers were unaware of the details of what had taken place this night. But they clearly saw the flashes of light and heard the crashes of thunder that indicated a great fight between Pérun and Veles. They also saw some terrible things sitting in their pastureland. The villagers feared that Veles had failed.

“I do not think that Veles will obtain an apple,” said Pán Brejčak.

“I don’t think Veles will uphold his end of the bargain!” said Pán Bergsmann.

“We have to help Veles!” said Pán Mudrák.

“What?! And get ourselves killed in the process?” barked Pán Smoleňak.

“Well, we must do something, my friends,” said Pán Penxa, “for to give up hope now will mean a certain death for all of us in the coming months.”

The villagers looked at one another, knowing Penxa spoke the truth. Having used up every scrap of food for the festival that evening, there was literally nothing left to eat; no wheat grains, no potatoes, no cabbage, no pork, nothing. They had lost faith in the plan and now were losing all hope for survival during the coming winter. The villagers were ashamed of what they had done.

“Perhaps it is time to call upon Pérun and admit to our plan with Veles,” suggested Pán Homza.

“Yes, Homza, that is very clever,” mocked Pán Kosturák. “How little did he already do for us this year! Do you think our admission will inspire him to do more next year?”

“Without help, Kosturák, there will be no ‘next year’,” retorted Homza.

The villagers looked at one another, contemplating the difficult months ahead.

“I am just a simple farmer and know nothing of how gods think,” started Pán Pavliščak. “But maybe, just maybe… we do not need to tell him everything. But if we call upon Pérun and tell him only that we have no food and ask for his assistance, perhaps we will distract him long enough to ensure Veles obtains the apple.”

“Distract?” questioned Mudrák.

“You mean to say ‘deceive’,” corrected Homza.

“Distract, deceive; what difference does it make,” said Pán Vanečko. “We already have dirt on our hands, all of us, so much that not even all the water in the Veľké Jazero could cleanse us. What is important right now is our goal to not starve to death.”

Pán Kušnirák absentmindedly looked down at his hands to judge the amount of dirt on them.

“We don’t even know whether Veles has been successful,” offered Pán Mudrák.

“True, Mudrák. But right now we have a horse and toad rotting in the fields we once plowed. Can we take a chance with our future and do nothing?” Vanečko added.

“Vanečko is right, of course,” said Pán Kaprál. “And we have only a short time to determine our destiny. So what will it be, I ask everyone?”

The villagers were silent for several moments. Finally, someone spoke up.

“I put my faith in Veles,” said Pán Lazarák. “I say we do nothing and wait.”

“I agree with Lazarák. I say we do nothing,” added Pán Drugáč.

“Our very future rests upon Veles’s success,” offered Homza. “I say we help him by distracting Pérun,”

“I agree with Homza,” offered Pán Vanečko.

“Kaprál? Kosturák? Penxa? What do you say?” asked Vanečko.

“Here is my opinion,” interrupted Pán Vasčura. “Earlier we had very little. Then we had nothing. Now we have not even the time to discuss the matter further. Day will break soon and then our deal will be off entirely. We must act immediately. To hell with those of you who disagree with me!”

And with that, Pán Vasčura stepped out of the crowd, knelt on the ground, raised his face and hands toward the sky and began chanting.

“Pérun, god of the sky and earth, god of thunder and lightning, he who makes the fields grow, he who gives warmth to the land, we beseech thee.”

The villagers looked at Pán Vasčura as he chanted, wondering whether calling for Pérun was right thing to do. Suddenly, Pán Vanečko stepped out of the crowd and knelt next to Pán Vasčura. With outstretched hands, he joined in the chant.

“Pérun, god of the sky and earth, god of thunder and lightning, he who makes the fields grow, he who gives warmth to the land, we beseech thee.”

One by one, men and women joined in until almost the entire village was on its knees, hands and faces pointed towards the sky. The villagers chanted in unison:

“Pérun, god of the sky and earth, god of thunder and lightning, he who makes the fields grow, he who gives warmth to the land, we beseech thee.”

A crack of thunder and a flash of lightning announced the arrival of Pérun. People covered their faces with their hands as the god descended onto the village in his chariot pulled by two rams. No one dared to look directly at him.

Pérun surveyed the villagers. He saw that each and every one had assembled to call for him.

“Villagers, I heard your request and I now come to you. Why have you called me?”

“Dear Pérun,” said Pán Vasčura without looking up, “our crops failed this year. It is now too cold to grow anything, and we’ve not a scrap of food left for winter. We ask for your wisdom and advice.”

“I do not understand how it is you have no food. Only hours ago, you fêted me with a glorious table of food and drink.”

“Yes, dear Pérun, we toasted to you many times last night,” offered Smoleňak, “but that was all the food that remained in the village. There is no more among us, not even a crumb.”

This made no sense to Pérun. Why would the villagers celebrate with the last of their foodstuffs unless they believed there would be more in the morning? From where would come this additional food? And why make a celebration on the winter solstice – the longest night of the year where Veles is typically celebrated – unless Veles was somehow involved?

Chapter X – Truth Revealed

Chapter X – Truth Revealed

The villagers stood before Pérun, their eyes all lowered so as not to look up at the god and perhaps reveal the truth. Pérun studied the villagers and tried to make sense of why they had once again called upon him. The god finally spoke.

“What is it that you ask of me?” demanded Pérun.

“We are all so miserable, dear Pérun,” replied Pán Vasčura. “With no food left, we are afraid of what the future may hold. Our plight is so bleak that we are starting to lose all hope.”

“Yes, I understand,” Pérun said. “You will have a difficult winter. Some of you will perish.”

Mária Šimšajóva let out a cry of fear, imagining her worst possible destiny.

“I am sorry,” Pérun offered. “Now I must be off.”

“Before you leave us,” interrupted Pán Penxa, hoping to delay Pérun’s departure, “perhaps you might suggest alternatives to our usual foods.”

Pérun looked perplexed.

“Your families have lived here a thousand years,” replied Pérun, “you already know what is edible and what is not. But you will surely find precious little in the fields at this time of year. I am afraid it will be a difficult winter for all of you. Now I must be off.”

With that, Pérun shook the reins of his rams. But before the chariot could budge one inch, another voice called out from the group.

“Oh, dear, dear Pérun,” begged Pán Kušnirák, “is there nothing you can offer us to lessen our hunger over this winter? Perhaps just some grasses for our sheep?”

Pérun looked down at this pitiful lot.

“You have foolishly wasted everything I have given you,” began Pérun. “You have created your own destiny. Now you must follow it. And I must return to my home.”

Pán Mudrák, who had previously doubted that Veles would succeed at all, suddenly spoke up.

“Dear Pérun,” he started, “perhaps there is one thing that you could offer that would help us considerably.”

The village turned and glared at Pán Mudrák. “What is he doing?” everyone wondered. They had only wanted to delay Pérun to give Veles enough time in the orchard; they had planned nothing more.

“Perhaps you could take pity on us poor villagers and offer us one golden apple from your orchard” suggested Pán Mudrák.

The villagers gasped.

“Shut up, Mudrák!” yelled Vasčura.

But it was too late. Pérun now knew the villagers coveted a golden apple.

The villagers were afraid of being exposed by Mudrák, unsure of the consequences it would bring. “If we make Pérun angry,” they thought, “perhaps he will deny us both sun and rain next year.” But Mudrák thought himself to be more clever than the others. He had made a very quick calculation that, even if Veles failed, the village might still get its golden apple. If Veles succeeded, then the village would have two.

“What would you do with a golden apple?” asked Pérun.

“Why, to have only one golden apple from your orchard would bring sudden and immense wealth to the entire village,” began Mudrák. “We would be rich enough to never work again and still have all the food we could possibly enjoy.”

Pérun thought for a few moments, and then finally spoke.

“You poor, silly peasants, do you not think that I would have made you wealthy a long time ago, were it possible?”

The villagers looked at one another, afraid of what they were about to hear.

“My apples are golden not because they are made of gold, but because they are made of fire and lightning. Were I to give you a golden apple, it might explode and kill each and every one of you. Afterwards, you would be obliged to accompany Veles to his watery world and help watch over his cattle for eternity.”

“What?!” exclaimed many of the villagers in hearing these words.

“This is not what Veles told us! We’ve been deceived” added Pán Smoleňak indignantly.

Pérun was not surprised to hear this.

“What is it that Veles offered you?” Pérun finally asked.

There was no way out now; the villagers had been exposed in their plot to obtain a golden apple, now a deadly golden apple. After a short silence, Pán Vanečko spoke up.

“Veles had promised to give us one of your golden apples.”

“And in return?…,” asked Pérun.

“Nothing,” said Pán Penxa.

“Really almost nothing,” added Pán Kosturák.

“He only asked that we be happy and content,” explained Pán Smoleňak.

“I remember his words exactly,” said Pán Vasčura. “‘Each and every day when you awake, you will be joyful to be alive. After having toiled in the fields all day, when night falls and you grow sleepy, you will be thankful to have had another day. That is my request.’ This is what he said.”

“Yes,” said Pérun, “how unpleasant it would have been to have joyless and thankless peasants tending to his cattle in the underworld.”

The villagers now realized that Veles meant only to kill them for his own benefit. There were no apples of actual gold. They would now go hungry and die this winter, and it was all Veles’s fault. The villagers were dispirited. Sobs of disappointment could be heard among the crowd.

“And when was he to give you this golden apple?” questioned Pérun.

“Before daybreak,” answered Pán Drugáč, “we were to meet him in the forest to celebrate his success.”

“But were you not afraid that Veles would refuse your return, that he would take you to his underworld?” asked Pérun.

“No, dear Pérun,” answered Pán Drugáč, “not at all. We planned to take with us our axes and cut down the trees if he refused us leave. We would see to it ourselves that we were out of the forest and again free.”

“You are a clever bunch,” responded Pérun.

“The sky is still dark,” said Pán Homza. “Perhaps Veles has returned to your orchard to steal a golden apple.”

“I shall go investigate,” said Pérun. “Meanwhile, take cover in your homes.”

And with that, Pérun shook the reins of his chariot. A flash of lightning and Pérun was already flying towards his orchard, while the villagers ran to their houses for safety.

Chapter XI – The Orchard

Chapter XI – The Orchard

In his chariot pulled by two rams, Pérun silently flew over the vast forest. As he neared the orchard, Pérun eyed Veles below, slithering between the trees. Pérun readied a stone from his pack.

“Veles,” Pérun called out, “your mischief has come to an end!” as he aimed the stone directly at Veles’s head.

Veles looked up with great surprise, but without enough time to avoid the heavy stone that rocketed toward him. It hit him squarely in the forehead, causing blood to trickle from the gash. Veles was momentarily stunned, and then let out a heavy scream, a scream of rage more than of pain. The scream grew louder and louder and quickly became a deafening screech as Veles transformed himself into a three-headed dragon.

“If it is war that you want, war is what you will get!” hissed Veles’s three heads in unison.

Veles threw himself high up into the air and, twisting his body, slapped Pérun’s chariot with his long tail, sending the chariot and all to fly sideways through the air. Startled, the rams darted away with the chariot in tow, causing Pérun to lose his balance and fall into the orchard below.

Before he could get to his feet, Veles charged, ramming all three heads hard into Pérun’s chest. Now hunched over and grimacing in pain, Pérun dropped the stone he had held and clutched his chest. The dragon approached him so that they were now almost eyeball-to-eyeball-to-eyeball-to-eyeball.

“You shall not conquer me,” the three heads hissed, “for I am Veles.”

Dazed and in pain, Pérun looked up at the dragon with half-open eyes.

“Surely I will not conquer you, Veles,” Pérun whispered, struggling for breath, “for I know your powers are equal to mine.”

Pérun paused for a moment to regain some strength. Still hunched over, his left hand briefly brushed against his ax.

“The powers you hold over the earth”, continued Pérun, “though different than my powers, are no less equal to my own. We are equals among gods, Veles. As equals, I know I shall not conquer you.”

Pérun suddenly grabbed his ax and raised it up into the air.

“But nor shall you conquer me, Veles,” his voice growing louder and stronger, “for I am… Pérun!”

As he yelled out his own name, Pérun swung his ax at the dragon, chopping off a head. The two remaining heads screeched in horror and the dragon’s webbed wings flapped in panic as the decapitated head fell to the ground. Pérun looked down at where the severed head lay, then kicked it aside.

The dragon continued to screech and flap its wings for several minutes until exhaustion set in. It lay there on the ground panting heavily, slowly transforming itself back into Veles.

“Veles,” Pérun began, you have caused me much annoyance throughout the millennia. “Now you try to trick the villagers to take them as your own. You are surely evil, Veles, and I must put an end to this evil.”

“’It is not I who am evil, Pérun,” responded Veles. “I only do the villagers’ bidding,” he added, as he darted behind a tree for protection.

“They wanted me to steal a golden apple from this very orchard,” Veles said. “They wished to be wealthy and to never work again. You say that I am evil. But surely you see the thievery, shiftlessness, and deceit in the villagers’ actions.”

“I see only desperation and hopelessness in their faces, Veles,” answered Pérun.

Pérun now slowly began to pursue Veles around the orchard as he spoke.

“Were it not for you, the villagers would not have gained false hope. They would have known to depend upon themselves and upon each other for support, in both good times and bad. But you… you offered them false hope. It is you who created this mess.”

Veles continued to slither between the trees, keeping his distance from Pérun, who deftly pursued him.

“They were almost mine,” said Veles, as he moved behind another tree. “They were to meet me before daybreak in the forest. There I would take them all with me to the underworld.”

“They would not have gone with you, Veles,” said Pérun. “They would have fought you.”

“Nonsense! They would have had no chance, Pérun. You see, once inside the forest, they would not have been able to reemerge. They would have been mine forever.”

“They planned to bring their axes and to cut their way free, if necessary.”

Veles looked at Pérun with outrage.

“I told you they were a deceitful bunch,” warned Veles.

During this exchange, Veles did not notice Pérun take another stone from his bag. But he now clearly saw it in Pérun’s hand.

“What now, Pérun?” asked Veles, peering out from behind a tree. “What do you intend for me now?”

“Only this!” said Pérun, as he aimed the stone directly at Veles.

But Veles was quick enough to duck this time. The stone flew past Veles’s head and instead hit a golden apple, causing it to fall from the tree and explode with a thunderous sound and a bright flash of light that shot high into the sky. Residue from the apple fell to the ground in the form of fine stone. The ground shook mightily, causing another golden apple to release itself from its stem.

Veles took cover behind yet another tree.

“Noooo!,” yelled Pérun as he lunged at the tree to catch the apple before it touched ground.

But it was too late. The golden apple hit the ground and exploded, releasing more thunder and lightning into the sky, with more fine rock falling to the ground. The ground shook further. This shaking, in turn, caused two more apples to fall and explode, releasing vast amounts of thunder and lightning, raining fine rock onto the orchard and again shaking the earth and causing more apples to fall, until finally the entire orchard of golden apples was exploding around them with tremendous force and lighting up the sky as bright as a summer day.

During this shaking, Veles lost his balance and fell to the ground. Seeing an opportunity, Pérun leapt upon him with a knee to Veles’s throat and reached for another stone from his bag. But the shaking of the earth was so violent that Pérun, too, lost his balance and fell directly onto Veles. Trying to hold on as the orchard violently shook and exploded around them, the two gods who repelled each other now clutched one another in an embrace so tight as to share the same breath between them.

As the orchard slowly exhausted itself of golden apples, explosions began to diminish. Fine rock dust from the exploding apples rained down on them. This falling residue formed layers of dust that quickly cooled and hardened on the orchard floor. After shaking themselves off, the gods climbed onto each newly formed layer so as not to become stuck or entirely consumed by the new rock that formed beneath their feet. But layers upon layers of dust continued to fall and build up on the ground, forcing the gods to climb higher and higher on where once the orchard stood.

Once the dust finally settled, layers and layers of rock had been laid upon the orchard floor, raising the land up thousands of feet above the plains below. Both gods remained silent as they contemplated what had just happened.

Chapter XII – Death Forewarned

Chapter XII – Death Forewarned

The orchard was desecrated. From the ground where they both stood, Pérun and Veles looked around them, then towards the sky, and then around them again. Pérun was in disbelief.

“Veles, look at what have you done?!” Pérun moaned in grief.

“No, Pérun, it was not I. It was you who made the first apple fall,” Veles tried to explain. “The rest just followed.”

Rock dust rained down as both stood there silently for several instances, still stunned by what had just occurred. Since gods do not cry, Veles saw that some rock dust must have gotten into Pérun's eyes.

“Yes, it is true that the first apple fell due to my own carelessness.” Pérun slowly agreed. “But none of this would have happened had you not come into my orchard in the first place. Look around, Veles! It is ruined. Where once stood a beautiful orchard is now just a mountain of rock. I will need ten thousand years to restore the orchard.”

But Pérun knew the orchard could never be restored. What now stood in its place was a magnificent mountain of rock, one that could never support his golden apple trees. Pérun was disheartened.

“You have caused me many problems over the millennia. But the destruction of my orchard is the greatest and most grievous act you could have done. It has diminished my powers. It has diminished me.”

“Nonsense, Pérun!” Veles replied. “You told me yourself that we are equals among gods. The loss of your orchard does not make you any less of a god in the eyes of the world. You still have your ax and your silly stones... And I'd be a little more careful with those stones in the future,” Veles mockingly added.

“Yes,” answered Pérun, “I still have my stones. And my ax.”

Pérun raised up his ax once again. What had once given him abundant pride now felt less powerful in his hand, less godly.

“But, Veles,” Pérun added, “I also have you to contend with. You have done evil in the past and, left unrestricted, you will continue your evil into the future. The earth has already had enough.”

Pérun took a few steps forward and pointed his raised ax towards Veles's neck.

“For this and for all the misdeeds in the past and future, Veles,” Pérun finally said, “I must now kill you.”

Backing up, Veles tried to reason with Veles.

“Morena holds no lamp for me, Pérun, and my death will not restore your orchard.”

“That is true,” answered Pérun. “But I will finally be done with you once and for all.”

Pérun raised his ax high into the air before preparing the final blow.

Veles's eyes grew large in a flash of momentary surprise. Then, just as quickly, Veles's regard was replaced with a serene calmness. Veles now stared without fear into Pérun’s eyes as he softly spoke.

“You cannot kill me, Pérun,” said Veles.

“And why is that?” asked Pérun, his ax still raised over Veles’s head.

“You will die without me,” answered Veles.

“Nonsense!” said Pérun as he raised his ax a bit higher.

“It is true, Pérun. Listen to me. You cannot exist without me, nor I without you. We repel each other and yet we are united by the heavens to look over this land together.”

“But if I kill you,” Pérun shot back, his ax still raised, “there will finally be tranquility on earth.”

“Yes, there may be tranquility,” Veles slowly agreed, “But when there is tranquility, the villagers will no longer need us. No longer will they call upon us for help, or offer their thanks and praise. Soon they will forget who we are and what we represent. They may even one day forget our names. We will fade from existence.”

With his ax still raised aloft, Pérun hesitated.

“My greatest fear,” continued Veles, “is that perhaps one day the villagers will replace us with another god, none as great as us though, perhaps even a false one who makes no promises and delivers nothing; one who is praised for the rains he does not produce, or blamed for the deaths he does not cause. Yes, I fear that day may come. But as long as we exist together, Pérun, we will continue to rule the earth. Our existence depends upon each other.”

Pérun lowered his ax slightly.

“Kill me, Pérun, if you must. I would prefer a quick death over a slow and painful fading from existence,” continued Veles. “But then, you will be alone. Without me, there will be tranquility. The villagers will no longer call upon you. They will forget you and then you, too, will slowly fade from existence, discarded and forgotten like a broken shovel. To simply fade from existence is not an ending fit for a god, neither for you nor for me. This is why you cannot kill me, my brother.”

Pérun and Veles were indeed brothers. Their father, Rod, supreme amongst gods, was father to all. Because he had allowed himself to slowly transform into a ghost, both sons knew that their father might be there watching their actions at any given moment.

Pérun continued to hold his ax high above as he weighed Veles's words. “What if Veles is correct?” he asked himself. “If there is peace on earth, will not the villagers thank me, praise me, glorify me?”

After a moment, Pérun slowly lowered his ax and returned it to its holder. He reluctantly released Veles from his grip.

“We cannot foretell the future, Veles. We are gods after all, not oracles. But perhaps your words do ring true.”

While they had been talking, the mounds of rocks beneath them had cooled and solidified so that the two now found themselves standing atop mountains peaks on what had been Pérun's cherished orchard. From their vantage point, they could see for many miles around.

“Veles, I do not want to fade from existence,” Pérun finally said, seeming to study the lands below. “I want to oversee these lands and be their god forever. The villagers, they need us.”

“Yes, just as much as we need the villagers,” added Veles wryly.

They both stood there a long time surveying the lands below. Veles finally broke the silence.

Grabbing a nearby rock, Veles began “This stone will serve as an apple – a golden apple,” he added with strange emphasis.

Pérun looked at him quizzically. Then Veles transformed the rock into an apple the color of gold.

“In case I get hungry,” Veles laughed heartily. “Daybreak will soon arrive; I am off,” he quickly said, as he now transformed himself into a strong wind that blew high off the mountain top and into the lands below.

Pérun continued to look down at the earth from his perch, studying the land and contemplating Veles’s words.

Chapter XIII – Veles’s Feast

Chapter XIII – Veles’s Feast

A strong wind blew mercilessly from the south into Osturňa. Shutters pounded and doors rattled, winds howled between the window frames, beckoning all to look out. Birds flew into the bush for protection while dogs retreated into their make-shift shacks. Cows mooed and sheep bleated, begging to be let back into the barn. After such a terrible storm that night, no one was prepared for another again so soon.

Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the wind stilled. The moos and bleats subsided. The dogs came out to again bark at nothing, while birds took to the sky in search of food. The villagers, disturbed by these sudden wind gusts but happy that they had passed, came out to investigate. Except for a weather vane that had blown off Závacký’s rooftop, they saw nothing unusual. The sun had begun rising to reveal a clear blue sky, while a waxing gibbous slowly descended in the west. The day would be fine, they thought, although a collective hunger was setting in.

Slowly, a slight wind began to pick up, rustling the remaining leaves on the trees, and this wind began to make soft, strange sounds, almost as to speak, growing in intensity until finally its voice became clear.

“Dear friends,” announced Veles, “I waited for you at the forest’s edge at daybreak, but it seems that everyone must have slept past the cock’s crow.”

The villagers were now frightened. Since Pérun had revealed his true motives, they feared Veles and wanted nothing more to do with him. Some tried to flee back into the safety of their homes, but another gust of wind came and slammed the doors shut so tightly that, no matter how hard the villagers pushed and pulled, the doors would not open. There they were, stranded on the road outside their homes in the feared presence of Veles.

“I was very disappointed,” continued Veles, “because we had had an agreement. But I have now come to personally accompany you to the forest. Follow me, my friends. I shall give you the golden apple as promised and we shall celebrate the day!”

The villagers shook with fear. Finally, one spoke up.

“Veles,” protested Pán Kaňuk, “we will not go with you to the forest today – nor any other day, for that matter. Pérun told us you had planned to kill us and take us to your watery world. You tried to trick us.”

“Nor are you a trustworthy bunch,” responded Veles. “Pérun told me that you had planned to bring axes to cut yourselves free, just in case I refused you leave.”

“Well, we are not going with you,” chimed in Pán Figlár, defiantly locking his arms together. “So be off!”

“That is really quite disappointing,” said Veles. “as I’ve already set the table with glorious foods! For our celebration, I offer two roasted pigs, three roasted goats, and an entire brood of roasted chickens.”

The villagers, none of whom had any food, were already hungry. Hearing this only made them hungrier.

“There are enough fish and tasty morsels from the sea to fill a komora to the ceiling.”

Pán Bergsmann and Pán Lešundak exchanged wary glances, almost feeling tempted by Veles’s offer.

“I have delicious fruits and vegetables from distant lands, and cheeses of many shapes and colors from the finest livestock.”

The villagers thought to themselves how nice it would be to have just a taste of some of these delicacies, just a small, little taste. Pán Gorel licked his lips.

“Breads! Did I mention breads? There are so many breads, enough to build a house! Breads made of wheat; breads made of rye; flat breads, round breads, twisted breads; rolls, loaves, breadsticks…”

The villagers distrusted Veles's word. But the food sounded delicious and they were hungry. It was such a shame, they silently lamented, that Veles could not be trusted.

“There are sweet cakes, poppy seed rolls the length of a tree limb, cakes cooked in lard, cakes filled with sweet creams. And pies! As many pies as there are stars in the sky, pies made from apples, pies made from cherries, pies made from the fruit of my own special trees.”

With food aplenty, the villagers began to think that perhaps they could go with him to the table, grab a few items, and quickly return to the village to enjoy them. They would take their axes with them, just in case.

“Oh! And of course there is enough wine to flood the entire village up to your knees.”

“Ha! Well then, I’m going!” announced Pán Kušnirák. Pán Harabin scowled.

“And the smells – they are heavenly! Breath in deeply and perhaps you will be able to smell them,” suggested Veles.

Just then, a very slight breeze wafted over the villagers. They breathed in deeply.

“Oh, I can smell the fat of the pig crisping on the spit!” said Pán Kovalčik.

“The chickens smell cooked to perfection!” said Pani Smoleňaková, as she deeply inhaled.

“Ah, the yeast in the breads smells lovely and delicious,” said Pani Brejčaková.

“Oh, and I can tell the lamb is nearly ready,” added Pán Brejčak,“with just the right amount of garlic and herbs, like Matka used to make.”

“Yes, I can smell the pies fresh from the oven!” said Pán Vaščura.

“The smell of wine is already making me a bit light-head,” commented Pán Kušnirák.

Although Pán Kušnirák was perhaps feeling light-headed, it was probably from the lack of food, rather than the smell of wine. In fact, there were no actual smells wafting through the air at all; Veles had tricked the villagers into smelling whatever they longed for, and believing whatever they wanted to believe. He knew this was the only way to gain their trust.

“So it is terribly disappointing that you cannot come to join in the feast,” said Veles.

“Well, perhaps we could come and sample a few morsels,” suggested Pán Barčak.

“I might like to come and taste the pork,” added Pán Pavliščak. “Yes, me too,” added Pán Kovalčik.

“Well then, come, follow the smells,” said Veles.

Under the spell of Veles, the villagers happily marched together toward the forest and to their certain demise, not one remembering to take along an ax. When they arrived at the forest’s edge, they remained under Veles’s spell.

“Welcome to my home,” said a gracious chamois, as the villagers arrived. “I am so happy you decided to come. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable.”

“Oh look, Pavliščak, there is the pig on the spit!” smiled Pán Homza, pointing with his chin.

“Here is a lovely pile of breads just waiting to be eaten!” commented Pani Glevaňaková, as she licked her lips.

Everyone was anxiously awaiting the feast to begin.

“The wine?” asked Pán Kušnirák, “Where is the wine?”

“It is right here,” said Veles, “I offer you an entire pond filled with wine.”

Pán Kušnirák was dubious because the liquid seemed somewhat clear. Bending down, he scooped some wine into a cupped hand and tasted it.

“Oh yes,” said Pán Kušnirák, “it is delicious. Clearly made from grapes superior to ours.”

He again cupped his hand to take more wine. Smiling in a toothless grin, he took another sip, breathing in to enjoy its flavor.

“It is a little like…” Pán Kušnirák searched for the right word. Slowly the smile disappeared from his face as he completed his sentence “… water!” The pond… it is only water,” Pán Kušnirák protested.

The spell was wearing off.

“Pán Kovalčik, look closer,” warned Pán Pavliščak. “The ‘pig’, it is only a log resting against a tree.

“Oh no!” said Pani Brejčaková, “the breads – just a pile of rocks.”

In a flash, the villagers realized they had indeed been tricked by Veles, and they began to protest loudly. The spell was over. But it made no difference to Veles. The villagers were already in his forest and effectively in his posession.

Chapter XIV – Despair

Chapter XIV – Despair

Slowly returning to their senses, the villagers now realized they had been tricked by Veles to enter the forest. They loudly protested, but Veles was unperturbed. He knew they were helpless and that his plan was nearly complete.

“We made a deal. A deal is a deal,” Veles said matter-of-factly.

“You promised us a golden apple and, in return, we promised to be happy,” protested Pán Drugáč. “You did not give us a golden apple and we certainly are not happy. The deal is off! We are leaving.”

“Just one moment,” said Veles who, for the first time, now appeared to the villagers as himself. “I intend to uphold my end of the bargain. I expect you to uphold yours.”

Veles held something behind his back.

“I promised you a golden apple, and a golden apple you shall have.”

Veles brought his arm from behind to reveal an apple to the villagers. The villagers all stepped back, fearing the apple might explode and kill them. But they quickly realized that what Veles held in his hand was not a golden apple from Pérun’s orchard, but only an ordinary apple the color of gold. The villagers were stunned.

“What is that supposed to be?” asked Pán Kaprál indignantly.

“Why, it is a golden apple, of course,” said Veles.

“That is not a golden apple,” yelled Pán Kroľak angrily.

“Surely you will all agree with me that this apple is not red. Nor is it green, nor pink, nor even blue,” said Veles. “Anyone in their right mind would agree that this is a golden apple!”

“Veles, your apple is simply an apple the color of gold, not one made of gold.”

“I never promised you an apple made of gold; I promised you a golden apple. You were the sillies who believed it to be made of gold, not I.”

The villagers once again began to loudly protest.

“You promised us a golden apple that would nourish us for the remainder of our days. One apple to feed us,” angrily complained Pán Kaňuk. ”One apple...”

“Yes,” answered Veles, “one apple. So, please eat, for this is your last meal.” Veles threw the apple into the crowd with a cruel laugh that only Veles was capable of making.

There were shouts of “trickery” followed by calls to return to the village. The villagers turned to leave, only to find themselves surrounded by deep, deep forest.”

“Axes!” people frantically called out, “who brought their axes?!” But no one had. Their only plan of escape had been thwarted by hunger.

“My friends, said Veles, “follow me and let us descend into my watery world where you will watch over my cattle for eternity,” adding “and remember to uphold your end of the bargain,” as he laughed deeply.

The villagers began to cry. Through their own greed and stupidity, they had allowed themselves to be deceived. And now they faced the end of their lives because of it.

“This is all your fault, Veles!” yelled Pán Gorel. “You tricked and deceived us!”

“Why, I deceived no one,” replied Veles. “I only allowed you to believe what you wanted to believe, to find hope wherever it might lay. Of course, I had my own hopes, too, and it seems that mine have finally come to fruition.”

“You promised me wine!” complained Pán Kušnirák.

“Oh, Kušnirák, then perhaps it is your fault that we all came,” argued Pán Barčak.

“No, Sir!” countered Pán Kušnirák, “Remember that you wanted to come and 'sample a few morsels.' So perhaps it is your fault!”

Veles was annoyed by this bickering among the villagers. But it continued.

“I did not want to come to the forest in the first place,” protested Pán Kaňuk.

“Yet, here you are! Perhaps it is your fault we are all here now!” complained Pán Smoleňak accusingly. “Perhaps you led us here to help Veles!”

“I did nothing of the sort,” Pán Kaňuk denied indignantly. “Had you not revealed the truth to Pérun, Smoleňak, perhaps none of this would have happened!”

“What else could I have said?” demanded Pán Smoleňak. “Once Mudrák asked for an apple from his orchard, Pérun understood everything. So maybe it is Mudrák's fault!”

“No, no, no!” insisted Pán Mudrák. “I did not want to summon Pérun again. It was Vasčura's idea. I had nothing to do with it. Vasčura's is to blame.”

“Don't accuse me, Mudrák!” cried Pán Vasčura. “I only summoned Pérun because no one could make a decision of what to do. Pavliščak wanted to deceive Pérun, and I knew that was the wrong thing to do. If it is anyone's fault, it is Pavliščak's!”

“Do not try to place blame on me, Vasčura!” said Pán Pavliščak. “Partial truth is not a lie. It is Homza's fault, because he had wanted to tell Pérun everything we had devised, and this would have risked the success of our plan.”

“You are being unfair, Pavliščak,” said Pán Homza. “Mudrák had wanted to help Veles, which I knew to be wrong. Clearly, this is all Mudrák's fault.”

“Again I am accused?!” yelled Pán Mudrák. “We had already a dead horse and a dead toad strewn onto our pastureland. It was obvious that Veles required our help.”

“Well then, that would be Pérun's fault,” whispered Veles. “But it doesn't matter how it all came to be; it only matters that it did! So follow me, villagers, to my underworld.”

But clearly, the villagers were not yet done making accusations and recrimination.

“Let us not forget that it was Kušnirák who toasted Veles last night,” reminded Kovalčik. “So it's his fault.”

“You are making me angry, Kovalčik!” said Pán Kušnirák. “Everyone heard me correct myself immediately. Besides, I would probably not have made the mistake had there not been so much pálinky at the feast. And who provided much of it? Pavlik! So it's his fault!”

“Whoa, Kušnirák!” said Pavlik. “Everyone celebrated last night. We all sang and danced to Drugáč's music. Shall we now blame the violin? Or the suckling pig? Or, perhaps we should we blame the women who cooked the meal and prepared for the feast!”

“Look, everyone,” began Pán Mudrák. “We all know who is really to blame: Veles. He is the one who urged us to use up all our food. Thinking back, I see he even gave us warnings that we chose to ignore. He told us to '...cook and feast as though it is your last night on earth!' We did this all for an apple!”

The villagers all wore shame on their faces.

“Yes, yes, yes,” added Veles impatiently. “I told you exactly what to expect. I promised that never again would you go hungry, nor would you ever again have a care on this earth. This will all come true once you follow me into my underworld. Now come!”

“Surely Homza shares much of the blame,” said Pán Figlár, “for he was the one who devised the plan to meet with Veles in the first place.”

Homza stopped to face the group.

“My friends... my dear wife... my children...,” Homza began, “it is easy to blame others for one's problems. It is less painful to do so than to admit to our own mistakes or failures. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that our problems were caused by our own actions – or inactions. Perhaps we could have tried to replant once the rains had finally stopped. But we did not. Perhaps we could have tried to make a deal with Franková or Niedzica for temporary relief. But we did not. We instead tried to find the easiest way to escape our problems.”

Several of the women began to cry, and a few of the men as well.

“Our heads and hearts should have worked together to overcome our problems,” continued Homza, “but they did not. Instead, we were overtaken by greed and foolishness. This is now the result.”

Homza's wife approached him, took his hand, and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek.

“My husband,” she said, “I shall love you forever. It is you who has given me strength and hope throughout the years. These gifts I will always hold dear. As long as I am next to you, I have hope in my heart.”

“Oh, that is so sweet, Pani whoever,” whispered Veles, “but my cattle await you in my underworld. Follow me now!”

“Morena,” Veles called out, “extinguish these lamps!”

“Oh, why had we come to Veles in the first place?” moaned Pán Kovalčik.

“Oh, to leave our homes and village forever…” sobbed Pani Figlárová.

“To never again feel plum brandy in my throat,” Pán Kušnirák sadly complained.

“I will never understand why we did not go to Pérun with our problems. He would have been able to help us solve them,” cried Pán Gorel.

“Perhaps we should have relied on ourselves and each other for strength,” admitted Pán Brejčak. “But it is too late, we are all now going to die. Pérun cannot save us.”

“Pérun!” shouted a villager, “please help us!”

“Save your breath,” said Veles. “Pérun cannot hear your cries in the forest, nor will he hear them in my underworld. So, follow me now closely below.”

The villagers reluctantly turned to follow Veles, crying out as they marched to their watery destiny. In this sad, sad moment, hopelessness began to envelope the group like a heavy cloak as they followed Veles to their doom. What fools they had been!

Chapter XV – Justice

Chapter XV – Justice

Crying and cursing, the villagers followed Veles as he led them to his watery world. Suddenly came a crack from the sky, followed by a bright flash, and then another. The villagers looked up to see a bright light descending towards them from the sky. The villagers shielded their eyes with their hands.

“It is Pérun!” shouted the villagers, “Pérun has come to save us!”

The villagers paused their march as they awaited Pérun's descent.

“Pérun! Pérun! Pérun!” the villagers chanted.

“Dog’s blood!” shouted Veles. “Quickly! Follow me! Follow me!” he ordered the villagers.

But the villagers refused to take another step.

Pérun’s chariot landed only for a moment, allowing him to step off before it returned to the sky.

“Why do you come here, Pérun?“ demanded Veles. “I claim these villagers as my own now.”

“Yes, lost in the forest with no way to escape, the villagers are most certainly under the control of your spell,” said Pérun. “Yet, the villagers have always shown courage and hope in the face of calamity. I do not believe they are willing to give up hope and go with you to your watery underworld.”

“Yes, save us, Pérun,” begged Pani Kroľaková without looking up.

“Save us, Pérun, save us!” the villagers began calling out.

“I cannot save you,” answered Pérun, “you must be willing to save yourselves.”

With that, Pérun unhooked his ax from its holder and held it up. Cocking his arm behind him, Pérun then let his ax fly through the forest, cutting a wide swath through the trees until it reached the end of the forest. The ax then miraculously returned to his hand.

“Go back to your village!” ordered Pérun, as the villagers scurried through the passageway.

The villagers had no time to thank Pérun for his help as they hurriedly exited the forest towards the safety of the meadows. Although famished, they failed to even notice the wealth of mushrooms that grew beneath their feet.

Pérun stood there watching the villagers flee while Veles, realizing his missed opportunity to take an entire village to his watery world, hissed curses to any who listened, his long, serpentine tail darting back and forth in rage.

Once the forest was free of all mortals, Pérun sternly turned towards Veles.

“They were mine, Pérun!” Veles loudly protested. “They were all mine! And you stole them from me!”

“I did not steal the villagers from you, Veles, for they were never free for the taking” Pérun replied. “I merely set them free.”

Before Veles could protest further, Pérun continued.

“I know it is your custom to take a person to your watery world to help you watch over your cattle. But this time, you have gone too far. You tried to take an entire village all at once.”

Showing no embarrassment or remorse, Veles simply responded, “Yes, it is my right to do so if I am able, Pérun.”

“But to take an entire village at once is cruel, Veles.”

“Listen, Pérun,” explained an exasperated Veles, “I did not command them to enter the forest. The villagers, they came on their own accord. They came with hope, the hope to gain something they didn’t have. Ha! Look at what it got them: almost killed.”

“They came with the hope of gaining something they needed,” replied Pérun.

“Well, sometimes there simply is no hope,” warned Veles. “Sometimes hope wilts and dies like a flower in the August heat, leaving only dried petals on the ground as a painful memory of what had once been. I have seen this many times. And when people give up hope, they become fodder for my folly.”

“It is true that the villagers almost lost all hope,” Pérun began, “but hope is also what saved them. How do you think I knew to come to this very spot in their time of need?” queried Pérun.

Veles turned to examine the large opening created by Pérun's ax. The forest was already repairing itself, trees and vines closing the hole.

“It was the villagers’ hope that beckoned me. I heard their hearts call out.”

Veles again turned toward Pérun.

“You fail to understand that, while they may sometimes feel discouraged or frustrated, the villagers never entirely give up hope. Their life is hard, their work difficult. Yet, hope lives deep in their heart every day for a better tomorrow.”

“Yes, today you have proven this to be true,” stated Veles. “But I have taken whole villages in the past without such nonsense. This must be an enchanted village of some sort.”

“You are wise to recognize this, Veles,” nodded Pérun.

Veles thought for a few moments about what he had just said, wondering how he had failed to detect the magic of this particular village.

“Well,” decided Veles, “there are many other villages out there waiting for me and my deceit.”

Then Veles’s attention returned to the moment at hand.

“And what now, Pérun? What plans do you have for me? Another stone? Another “apple”? Or do you plan to kill me once and for all?” Veles asked mockingly.

“Oh, to kill you once and for all would bring me so much joy,” replied Pérun, “but you know it is not possible. Instead, I command you to return to your watery world and leave these villagers alone once and for all.”

“And should I decide not to leave?” asked Veles.

“Then I shall help deliver you.” answered Pérun.

“Deliver me? To where?” queried Veles.

“Here!” replied Pérun.

With these words, Pérun suddenly grabbed Veles by the neck and tail and kicked him with all his might into the earth below, shouting "Well, there is your place, stay there!"

The force of his kick sent Pérun’s left boot into pastureland, while it sent Veles flying sideways through the underground, pushing the land upward as his body flew just underneath. The force of Veles’s body sailing through the earth below created hills and mountains where flat land once stood. His arms flailing, Veles tried to stop his body from being propelled. But his attempts only served to do more damage to the land above and to push the ground up even further.

Veles’s body did not come to rest until it finally reached the Kingdom of Serbia. Veles then dove downward, deep into his home where Pérun would not be able to find him. To exact revenge, Veles swore that he would one day return and destroy forests and crops, but that day never came.

Chapter XVI – Deliverance

Chapter XVI – Deliverance

Having escaped the forest and Veles’s grip, the villagers were just reaching their barren fields when the ground began to suddenly and violently shake. The land moved up and down, undulating with terrific force.

“What is happening?!” many of them cried out, frightened and confused by the earth forcefully shifting beneath them.

All lost their balance and fell to the ground as the land on which they had stood moved beneath their feet. Vanečko tightly held his wife, Katarina, in his arms as the land forced itself upward. Pani Kusňiráková began to slide down a newly created hill, only to be caught by Pán Smoleňak in the last possible moment.

The ground shaking continued for several minutes and then very slowly subsided. At last, the ground stopped moving and the villagers slowly stood up to assess what had just happened. Pani Kusňiráková, still holding tightly to Pán Smoleňak, released him, then quickly rose and brushed herself off, letting out an embarassed giggle at the thought of another man holding a married woman, even if she did rather fancy him.

The villagers were shocked and disoriented by this sudden change to once familiar terrain. Where once stood flat pastureland was now a series of beautiful rolling hills and mountains reaching towards the sky. In the distance, the villagers were amazed by the vast forests that now rested high upon mountain tops. They were dazzled by the beautiful green peaks underlining a clear blue sky. In the distance were even higher mountains where Pérun’s orchard had once stood. Snow had already begun to cover its peaks.

Katarina clutched her heart. “I have always loved this land,” she said, “but I never realized how beautiful it was until now. Our land is surely the most beautiful in the world!”

The villagers stood there for a moment, stunned by the newfound beauty of their environs.

“Look!” said Pán Kaňuk, “I can see my house from here!”

“And over there,” said Pani Figlárová, “there is the church!”

“Yes, and the krčma is just up this hill!” added Pán Kusňirák, pointing westwardly.

The villagers suspected the gods were somehow involved in this bizarre act. But they could not understand why either would cause such destruction. Nobody had heard Veles scream as his body bore through the ground underneath, rearranging the land above in various directions.

Still stunned by the recent event, the people slowly continued their descent towards the village. The sun shone brightly as a warm gentle rain began to fall over the fields. A rainbow soon appeared in the direction of Franková. As they continued down the hill towards the village, a few noticed small green shoots pushing out from the ground.

“What is this I see!” exclaimed Pán Tužak. “There is new growth in our fields!”

The further the villagers walked, the larger the shoots grew until finally the fields were covered in a lovely dense green growth. In the distance where animals usually grazed, grasses and flowers of white, purple, and yellow were pushing out from the ground.

“Oh, my,” Pani Vaščurová said with amazement, “this is surely a gift from Pérun.”

“Just look at the leaves on those potato plants, broad and healthy,” Pán Rusnák pointed out. He reached down and dug his hand into the moist soil, revealing large and perfectly formed potatoes.

“Thank you, Pérun! Thank you! Praise be to Pérun.”

Others too began to dig, discovering onions, garlic, carrots, and more. Cabbages suddenly sprouted from the moist soil. All began to shout, “Praise to our dear god, Pérun! Praise Pérun!” Unearthing bushels of produce, the villagers grabbed as much as their hands and aprons would carry back to the village, with much still left to harvest.

“We shall not go hungry today, nor shall we tomorrow,” proclaimed Pán Figlár. “Pérun has provided for us. He has restored not only our faith in him, but also hope in our hearts. For this, we must offer him our praises forever.”

Shouts of “Yes!” and “Praise Pérun forever” came from the crowd.

“Now let us return to our homes and cook this bounty. Drugač, ready your violin! I believe this day calls for another feast. But this time, it shall be in honor of Pérun,” announced Figlár.

“Yes, a feast for Pérun,” all shouted.

“And let us not forget the promise we made to Veles,” added Kusňirák.

The villagers stopped and looked at Pán Kusňirák with bewilderment.

“Well,” continued Kusňirák, “we must keep our promise, for we are good and honest people.”

“What agreement?” demanded the crowd.

“That each and every day when we awake, we are joyful to be alive. And after having toiled in the fields all day, when night falls and we grow sleepy, we are thankful to have had another day,” reminded Kusňirák.

“That agreement was with Veles” said Pán Pavliščak. “But it was not Veles who provided this bounty; it was Pérun.”

“Of course, Pavliščak!” replied Pán Kusňirák, looking around at the others. “And we must remember the greatness of Pérun for saving us from both a certain death and hunger. But Veles did give us a golden apple as agreed, and we must therefore uphold our end of the agreement, regardless of how well – or how poorly – the deal turned out.”

Pán Rusnák spoke up. “I agree with Kusňirák. We must uphold our end of the bargain.”

“I also agree with Kusňirák,” added Pán Kaňuk.

“I, too, am with Kusňirák on this,” offered Pán Drugáč. Other villagers remained skeptical.

“It is true we are indebted to both Pérun and Veles,” Kusňirák pointed out. “Assign the debt to whichever god you choose. But it is our duty to uphold our end of the bargain.”

“Fine, I agree to uphold my end of the agreement. However, I do it not in the name of Veles, but in the name of Pérun,” said Pán Harabin.

“Yes, in the name of Pérun we shall do this!” everyone chimed in.

The matter finally settled, the villagers ran home to cook their new bounty, as all were very hungry indeed.

Epilogue

Epilogue

The land was forever changed, not only in Osturňa, but for hundreds of miles in all directions. Instead of flat terrain to which they were accustomed, most villagers now had to walk uphill in order to reach their narrow plots of land. Farming required a little more effort. Yet, no one complained. The rolling hills and distant mountains seemed to enhance the beauty of an already beautiful landscape.

The village itself was somehow spared from ending up atop a mountain. It instead found itself situated deep in a valley, protected by beautiful surrounding hills. Within a few hours following the great quake, water began to trickle down the side of these new mountains, creating a stream that ran straight through the village, perhaps a conciliatory gesture from Veles. The villagers aptly named it the Osturňa Creek. They were appreciative of the proximity to their homes that this new water source offered. Yet, no one ever thought to thank Veles.

The battle remnants that the gods had so carelessly abandoned on the pastureland were too large for the villagers to remove. Instead, they chose to leave everything in place and allow the items to be subsumed by nature into the land itself, with grasses and trees helping to shield them from view. Still, it is said that, in the early morning hours when the light is just so, they reveal themselves once more.

Life thereafter continued in a much calmer manner. The land produced its yearly bounty, grasses flourished in the meadowlands, sows birthed piglets, cows gave milk, sheep provided wool. In short, life returned to its normal, tranquil state. Never again did the villagers need to beseech the help of gods for their well-being.

One might wonder whether Pérun and Veles faded from existence, or only from our collective memory. Though the notion would perhaps be considered blasphemous to admit and, thus, it is a secret we keep from the village priest, many of us know in our hearts that these gods continue to live among us today. It is evidenced by the battles they wage against each other several times each year. Fortunately, these battles are not nearly as consequential as the one in question long ago. Still, as a precautionary measure, we continue to mark our houses with the sign of Pérun to avoid the stray lightning bolt that would otherwise destroy our wooden houses. The priest assumes these are merely decorations, and we make no effort to enlighten him.

The mountains that Veles’s underground journey created are what we now call the Carpathians. The mountain of rock that rests atop the site of Pérun’s former orchard was given the name Tatra Mountains. Apart from myself and a few other elders, no one recalls how these mountains and hills were originally created, as memories have faded with time. Yet, one thing we villagers have not forgotten is to uphold our end of the bargain made centuries earlier, even though most no longer remember with whom or for what the bargain was made. But that is why each and every day, when we awake, we are joyful to be alive. And after having toiled in the fields all day, when night falls and we grow sleepy, we are thankful to have had another day.

 

 – “MV”

 

 

Afterword

Afterword

The act of translating the original manuscript into English began a long love affair between me and my adopted home of Osturňa. To fully appreciate the text, it was important to explore the language, culture, and history of this people with whom I share blood but not culture. It is a feat I have yet to complete to my own satisfaction. But in so doing, it provided me a new perspective on a people who persevered to create a satisfactory life for themselves despite centuries of poor farming conditions, severe winters, two world wars, and fifty years under Socialist collectivism (in which the villagers stubbornly refused to participate!).

There is no industry in the village per se. Logging, sheepherding, and small plot farming historically sustained the village. The last two decades have seen increasing numbers of chatas, cottages used by vacationers during the warmer months. Even though there remain a few working farms in the village, Osturňa is being transformed into a vacation destination. As there are no organized tourist activities within the village, upon completion of this translation, I reset my focus on the exploration of tourism.

Investigating the feasibility of hiking trails and ski slopes as possible recreational activities, I began to examine the southern lands between Osturňa and Ždiar to identify potential routes. Reversing the map so that the top pointed southward, I was struck by what the map seemed to reveal. I thought back to the story as it unfolds, where we learn a horse ends up dead on the pastureland, followed by a lumbering toad. Later, one of Pérun’s stones lands in the same general vicinity, as does his boot upon kicking Veles underground. Was I hallucinating, or was the map now divulging a long-held secret? Allow me to explain my theory.

Every house in Osturňa has a name. This is a useful shorthand technique to help distinguish between the numerous families who share the same surname. Rather than saying “I am going to visit the Smoleňaks,” leaving open the question of which Smoleňaks, I might simply say, “I am going u Potoka” (by the creek). This statement clearly identifies which family in which house. When I learned that someone lived Pod Topánkou (under the boot) or Zadné Kopyto (hind hoof), I had never thought to question the origin of these names. The name of my own house, Muržin, seems somewhat random and Potok is not even near the creek. As no one in the village could satisfactorily explain their origins, I simply accepted these ancient names as they were. But based on the location of certain houses vis-à-vis the landscape, some of the names suddenly began to make sense.

From the land formations I recognize in the map, the house Pod Topánkou corresponds appropriately to where the boot is found, as does Zadné Kopyto to the location of the horse’s rear hoof. There are probably many other examples that I have yet to uncover. Although we shall never know for certain, I have come to the conclusion that at least some of the house names are based upon geographical features of the land under which the houses sit.

Perhaps I am wrong in my conclusion and that I have been blindsided by the story itself, my mind constructing a fantastic tale to justify what my eyes tell me exists. But the proof I offer here is quite compelling. The only other possibility, of course, is that I concocted the entire story myself, a suggestion that seems rather outlandish considering the evidence I provide here.

On the following map, I have outlined what I believe to see in the southern lands of Osturňa. You may study the map and form your own conclusion. Either I have solved the mystery, or the entire story is nothing more than a fantastic confabulation. It is up to you to decide.

– Thom Kolton

 

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