Anne Pikkov – Mónika Egri: Curse Criers

Beyond the Seas, International Fairytale Project in Hungary
El Proyecto Internacional de Cuentos Allende Los Mares, Hungría
Translation made by Luca Szabó

There’s no way of knowing when the stories about them started. The meadow whispered them, the leaves on the trees murmured them, the sky thundered them, the bell tolled them. All signs were blurry, everyone heard only wafts, or saw only a shadow. But they were all quite sure that there was something in the woods.
At daytime, gloom covered the thousand-year-old, mossed trees, and as night came, whirling fog started to billow from the depths of the cave. It floated silently, slowly, and it drew strange figures in front of the moon.
Most villagers never ventured near the forest, and if they did, they made the sign of the cross, and they put their best foot forward.
“I’m telling you we should chop down all the trees and burn them. Then we would find out what lives in that forest,” said Goodwine, the old woodworker in the tavern.
“Wouldn’t you be sorry for that much nice wood? How many cupboards and beds could be made with it!” the bootmaker joked. He was as afraid as anybody. So much that his thick moustache was shuddering.
“No, I wouldn’t if that’s what it gets us rid of… them,” but he didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, he gulped down another strong shot.
“This is a cursed forest, even though they say that in that cave there’s a treasure…”
“Who says that?” the landlady leaned closer. “I don’t know anyone who would have ventured as far as thirty feet from the edge of the forest. And no one has ever set foot in that cave, not since I was born. And I was born a good long time ago, and, believe me, I know everyone in this village. Noone would risk being captured by the curse criers, nor having their life soured.”

Ilustration made by estonian artist, Anne Pikkov

Ilustration made by estonian artist, Anne Pikkov


“Hush now, woman,” the landlord scolded his wife. “Don’t you dare to say their name here! This is a sacred spot. The tavern is a sacred spot, just ask anybody. Even the priest buys the wine for the mass from us. It is so, isn’t it, lads?

The landlord looked around angrily, but everyone was looking at their glasses and nodding. For a while, no one dared to speak. Long last a drunken voice from a corner broke the silence.
“I was there. When I was a child. I was there.”
A cold draught went through the room. The candles flickered, and then went out. The landlord lit them again with trembling hands.
“Tell us, mate. What did you see? What is the truth?”
“I’m not sure if you want to know it. Maybe it’s better to forget the past along with its shadows.”
“Not so fast! If you know something, out with it, or else we’ll throw you into the middle of the woods, I swear.”
“Well, as you wish, but don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. I was a small child, seven or maybe eight years old. My father was a forester, as well, just like all my ancestors for generations. There had been tales about the woods before my time, but noone knew anything for sure, of course. Some animals went missing mysteriously whenever they happened to approach the trees. And the silence was uncanny, too. A forest should be loud. A forest is life itself. At least anywhere else but here. Here birds don’t sing during the day, and at night, the owl is quiet. One day, some goats got into the forest somehow. They were eating grass quite innocently, and they were getting deeper and deeper into the woods. When my mother couldn’t find them in the evening, she told my father, and he started looking for them immediately. My father was a very brave man, so he wanted to go alone, but I begged him so persistently that in the end he said I could accompany him. I was tremendously excited, as I had been told scary stories about the forest since my early childhood, but still I was really curious. Of course, I had heard about the treasure in the cave, as well. This made the adventure even more attractive. We got ourselves two torches, and set out for the wilderness. My heart was pounding, and I had the feeling that we were being watched closely from every bush. My father could trace footsteps, but in the darkness this proved to be difficult. We didn’t find the goats, and after a while we found ourselves at the entrance of a cave. The strange thing was that there came some light from the depths of it. My father started to go inside, and I followed him. As we kept going, it became lighter and lighter. And in the cave there sat a…”
“A monster!”
“A ghost!”
“No, no. There sat a girl on a rock, and she was looking into the air rather sadly.”
“A girl?! A GIRL?!” the landlord cried taken aback. “Are you telling me that we are afraid to cross the forest to the next village because of a girl?”
“Because of a girl, indeed. But she wasn’t just any kind of girl. First, she seemed nice, she was even pretty, but then I saw it.”
“What? What did you see?” everybody in the tavern gasped.
“I saw that she had nothing where her heart should have been.”
“What do you mean she had nothing where her heart should have been?”
“Well… There was nothing there. Just a cavity. When she saw I was looking at the place where her heart should have been, she said: ‘Are you looking for my heart? I don’t have it anymore. They have taken it. Far away. There were many of them, and everybody took one piece. They left nothing for me. Are you looking for your animals?’ I could see my father was astonished by this speech; he could not utter a single word. For that matter, I got cold feet, as well. You don’t see things like that every day, do you? Then she pointed at a chest. Her eyes narrowed, her voice became frightening. ‘Or are you looking for your goats? Or are you here for my treasure? Do you want to rob me?’ ‘No, we don’t,’ my father stammered. I thought we might have to run for our lives soon.”
“And did you run?”
“No, not yet, because the girl started crying. First, she sobbed loudly, so that even the walls shook, then she got more and more quiet, and when her breathing calmed down, she went on talking. ‘I grew up near here,’ she said. ‘I loved playing in the woods. I loved the squirrels, the mice, even the crickets. Then one day I found this chest in a den. It looked very old, but it was ornate. I managed to open it with a twig. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t! As soon as I opened it, thick smoke started pouring forth. It surrounded me, almost suffocated me. Then the smoke turned into creatures, and they whispered in my ear. They whispered I had to give them a hundred hearts, or else they would take mine. I was terrified, so I made a deal with them. I gave them a heart every night, but I could only give them the hearts of animals. The forest grew more and more quiet, and the smoke-creatures found out my secret. They had not told me it had to be human hearts, so they couldn’t take mine, but they cursed me, and since then, my life has been empty. Whenever I grew to like someone, they left me, and took a piece of my heart with them. For a while, I didn’t even notice, but I became more and more heartless. When I realized what was happening, nothing was left, only this great cavity in its place. I might not be a person anymore. I don’t even know how long I have been living in this cave. The black creatures guard me every night. Sometimes I find some animal that has lost its way, and I hide them in a corner of my cave.”
At this point, she gestured behind her back, and indeed, many frightened eyes were blinking in the darkness.
“But you do have a heart,” my father said after waking from his astonishment. “You can cry, and you feel sorry for these animals. Don’t you see? You are still a person, and a very good person at that. Come with us, let’s get you out of these woods, and then the curse criers won’t have power over you anymore.”
She looked surprised, and her astonishment only grew when she saw that the cavity in her chest had disappeared. She had a heart again!
After that, I can only remember that we were running in the darkness. There was mist around us, we kept stumbling, but somehow we made it out of the forest. Since that day, we haven’t set foot anywhere near it, and we don’t let anyone else go there.”
“Why?”
“Because the curse criers still haunt it.”
There was a pause. Then the landlady asked the question.
“Isn’t there a way to get rid of them?”
“Oh, yes, there is, but we would need the whole village for that. To make them disappear forever, everyone has to sacrifice a tiny piece of their hearts. But those who are heartless anyway will have nothing left after that. So think about it twice.”
“Let’s go and tell everyone,” the bootmaker cried and stood up. A minute later everyone was outside, and an hour later everyone was ready to fight the curse criers. At the edge of the forest, they took each other’s hand, and they waited. Every one of them was afraid, but as they were standing there together, an unexpected calmness overpowered them.
In that same moment, something stirred in the forest. Thick, dark smoke swirled and whirled in the woods frantically. It tugged at the leaves faster and faster, more and more loudly. Branches broke, dirt flew about, then it all became one huge ring, and it went higher and higher, just like a tornado. Finally, it disappeared with a loud bang.
The villagers stood there half deaf, with ringing ears, and didn’t dare to believe that it was over, that the curse criers were gone once and for all. But they found something strange. An old, empty chest was lying at their feet.
Then a little bird started singing on the top of the pine tree, then another, and another. From among the trees came the sound of hooves.
Today, the village is a quiet place, where everyone has a calm life. Some people have not been seen ever since, and according to the gossip, the curse criers took them. But only those who did not have a heart.
The others have enough goodness and love anyway.
There is always someone who stays to help patch any holes.

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