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KARALINE AND THE GREEN MAN – A SLAVIC TALE

Karaline pulled on her boots and whistled at the black-and-tan hound skulking toward a mound of sausage on the table where the family took meals. ”Don’t you dare, Bron,” she said, wagging a finger. “Those are for Grandmother.” She pointed to the hearth that kept the one-room cottage warm and cozy. Bron plodded to the corner, pausing every few steps to look back with baleful eyes, finally settling with a long snuffle atop a worn, braided rug. Karaline finished dressing, blew him a kiss, and joined her mother at the table.

They filled a basket with kielbasa, goat cheese, a loaf of freshly baked rye bread, a poppy seed cake, and a flask of mint tea. “I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Why don’t we ask Grandmother to live with us? You wouldn’t have to send me into the forest to bring her treats.” Her blue eyes widened. “The deep, dark forest.”

Mama laughed as she covered the food with a white cloth. “The same forest you wander at midnight every summer looking for magic fern blossoms? It’s a wonder your skin hasn’t turned to bark, all the time you spend in the woods.”

“That’s because the Leshee hasn’t caught me. I’m too clever for his tricks.”

“Do not think to tempt him,” Mama said with a scowl. “The Green Man loves to lure the unwary, and I doubt Bron can stop him from coating your nose with moss.”

“I’m twelve,” Karaline huffed. “I can take care of myself.”

“Ah, yes, such a wise age.” Mama tucked a wisp of golden hair under her scarf. “Then I need not remind you to stay on the path?”

“No, of course not.” Karaline twisted a brown curl around her finger. She knew better than to mention the wild angelica flowers–Grandmother’s favorites–that grew mere feet from the trail. She always picked a bouquet when they were in bloom. As long as she could see the path, she reasoned, it was all right. Besides, whenever she arrived with a handful of the fragrant white blossoms, Grandmother always smiled and put a finger to her lips. It was their special secret.

“I am glad to hear it.” Mama patted her swollen stomach. “A sister must set a good example.” She fit a red cap to Karaline’s head, kissed her cheek, and tied the matching cloak fast. “There’s food in the pockets. Safe journey. I expect you home for supper tomorrow.”

#

The late morning air was crisp and clean, the ground thick with fallen pine needles. To the south, the Carpathian Mountains were dusted with snow. Karaline rested the basket handle in the crook of her arm and set off with Bron at a brisk walk. They usually made it to Grandmother’s place before dark, depending on how many travelers they encountered. Bron insisted on greeting them all; getting him to move along before every passerby had been sniffed and given him a friendly pat was like trying to move a dog carved out of stone.

Today, for some reason, they met no one, although Karaline was sure a figure shadowed them as they walked through the pines. A pale shape hovered at the corner of her eye, yet whenever she turned to see, it vanished. Well, she thought, if someone meant her ill, Bron would come to her rescue. After all, his name, Bronislovas, meant “protector”. She gave him an affectionate hug and was rewarded with a toothy smile.

At mid-day, they stopped for a meal of chicken jerky and apples. Bron chased squirrels while Karaline listened to woodpeckers and coaxed a fawn to nibble bits of fruit from her palm. She quenched her thirst with tea, called for her dog, and continued northward, following the path as it wound through copses of spruce that grew so thick the sun barely peeked through. Karaline pulled her cloak tighter and kept Bron close.

An hour or so later, Karaline spotted the white whorls of angelica a few yards from the trail. She glanced about, tiptoed to the bush, and hastily plucked its stalks, pressing the blooms into the side of her basket. Then she heard a throaty call that made the hairs on her neck tingle.

“Kara.”

Bron growled and tugged on her cape, urging her back to the road. She shushed him and strained to listen. The voice sounded like her best friend, Aleks. But he was supposed to be in the hills tending his father’s flocks. Or had he come to jest with her? He’d done it before, though never this deep in the forest.

“Kara, my lady.”

“Aleks! Is that you? Stop hiding. It’s not funny.”

A tawny-haired youth dressed in green darted out from an azalea bush a stone’s throw away. “Catch me if you can.” He stuck out his tongue and sprinted into the trees.

Karaline hesitated. If she followed, she might not reach Grandmother’s cottage before nightfall. Then she chided herself. Aleks was fast, but she was faster. He hadn’t won a race with her yet. She wedged her basket in the lower limbs of a nearby tree, walked back to her dog, and hiked up her skirt. “Stay here and watch our things, Bron. I’ll be back soon.”

Bron pranced in front of her, snapping. No matter which direction she turned, he was there, blocking the way. Karaline sighed, stomped back to the basket, then whirled around, took a running jump, and sailed over her dog’s astonished face. Bron yelped and took off after her.

They raced through groves of birch and alder, startling grouse, hares, and stoats, until they reached a clearing carpeted in moss and surrounded by trees as old as time itself. Bron collapsed, panting. Karaline clutched her side and leaned against a pine. “Aleks, I give up. You win.”

A door at the base of the largest pine opened. The boy Karaline sought came forward, raised a hand, and disappeared in a flurry of leaves. When the gust subsided, the Green Man stepped out.

He stood taller than any man Karaline had ever seen. His ivory torso was bare. A long tail swished behind black-furred legs that ended in hooves. Tiny horns jutted above his pointed ears, framing a wrinkled face of tree bark. Instead of hair, vines sprouted and writhed around his head. Karaline gulped as he studied her with glittering emerald eyes. Bron whined and buried his face under his paws.

The earth rumbled when he spoke. “You take the bounty of my realm without thanking me?”

“Leshee?” Karaline squeaked.

“That’s Lord Leshee to you, child,” he replied, puffing out his chest.

I beg pardon, my Lord. It’s just…you’re real!”

“What are they teaching the children of Lithuania these days? Must I show myself to every simpleton who enters my domain before you believe in me?”

Karaline bit back a retort. Once Leshee showed up, you were at his mercy. Please him, and he might give you a gold-studded pinecone. Make him angry, and he’s send you off covered with moss, or worse, turn you into a tree. She’d already offended him by picking flowers for Granny. How could she make amends?

She cringed as he strode toward her, lips pulled back in a crooked grin. Her stomach rumbled and roiled, and suddenly she knew what to do. Her basket contained one of Leshee’s favorite foods. If she could get back to the path and distract him, she might yet escape. “I apologize,” she said with a deep curtsey. “If your grace would be so kind, I would be honored to break bread with you.”

Leshee’s face brightened. “Fresh bread?”

“Baked this morning.”

“Very well. I will sup with you. Take my arm and hold tight to your dog.”

Karaline lifted Bron with a grunt and screwed her face into a smile. “As you wish. Back to the road, if you please. I left my basket there.”

A flicker of suspicion passed over Leshee’s face. Oh dear, Karaline thought. Maybe he can sense I’m trying to trick him. “Oh, I forgot to tell you…there’s cake, too.”

A moment later, her stomach collapsed as Leshee sped through the forest. The passing trees blurred. Karaline closed her eyes, the jerky she’d eaten threatening to rise in her throat. When they arrived at the road, she released her hold and staggered to the tree where her bounty had been stashed.

Her mind raced as she removed the white cloth and pulled out the bread. To overcome Leshee, she had to turn her clothes inside out and then chant…how did it go? Lamb’s cup, lamb’s coat? Oh, why couldn’t she remember?

Leshee tapped her shoulder, grabbed the loaf with one hand, and held out the other. “You promised cake.”

“Yes, my Lord. It seems to have shifted to the bottom of the basket. Why don’t you rest on the log over there and I’ll bring it to you?”

Leshee hobbled away, chewing noisily. Karaline called Bron to her and whispered in his ear. “Show him your tricks. I don’t want him watching me.”

Bron padded to the fallen tree and stood on his hind legs. He walked down the road a ways and back again, and looked to Karaline for approval. She moved her finger in a circle, then across her throat. Bron dropped to all fours and began chasing his tail.

Leshee clapped in delight and encouraged him to go faster, faster, until Bron finally crumpled, quivering and gasping for breath. His legs jerked madly in the air. With one last, strangled groan, he went still.

“Ack!” Leshee spit out his bread. He stretched out one arm and poked the dog’s muzzle. One eye slowly blinked open, then the other. Before he realized what was happening, Bron jumped up, grabbed the rest of the loaf, and ran toward Karaline.

She smoothed her rearranged clothes. Leshee ran up and stomped in fury. “A trick!” he screeched. “You little vixen!”

Karaline stood firm and recited her chant in a clear, strong voice: “Lamb’s cup, lamb’s coat. Lamb’s cup, lamb’s coat.”

Leshee paused, one foot in the air. “Lamb’s…what?”

Karaline’s throat went dry. She’d gotten the chant wrong. Not lamb. Something similar? “Ram’s cup, ram’s coat.”

“Oh, for the love of…is that what you’ve learned about me? Lamb? Ram?”

Karaline faltered and then remembered the animals her friend watched. She held her head high. “Sheep’s cup, sheep’s coat.”

Leshee groaned and pinched the bark between his brows. “What kind of adversary are you? There’s no point in dressing backwards if you can’t remember the chant.” His eyes glinted. “Well, you’ve been clever enough to get this far, I might as well give you a fighting chance. Not a cup.” He folded his arms. “Go on. Think!”

Karaline blinked in confusion. She’d never heard of Leshee offering help. She watched him with new interest. People often gave you clues without realizing it; maybe spirits were the same. “Not a cup,” she said, scratching her chin. “A glass? A jar? A mug?”

Leshee’s nose twitched.

“A mug. Sheep’s mug!”

“See what you can do if you try. Now let’s have the rest.”

Karaline bit her lip. “Don’t I get another hint?”

“What do you take me for, a fool?”

“Never, my Lord.” Karaline blew out a long breath, her hopes for an easy win dashed. “All right. I was wrong about the cup. So…not a coat?”

For a long minute, Leshee didn’t move. Then his tail switched.

“Sheep don’t have coats. They have wool.”

The tips of Leshee’s ears wiggled.

“Wool. That’s it.” Karaline leaned close, certain she’d found the answer. “Sheep’s mug, sheep’s wool! Sheep’s mug, sheep’s wool!”

Leshee pranced with glee. “You’ve got it. Well done. For a moment I thought…”

But Karaline never learned what he thought, for his face twisted in dismay and–with a pop!–he vanished.

Bron nudged her. She knelt and pulled the bread from his jaws. He waited, tongue lolling, while she rummaged through the basket and broke off a bite of sausage for him. “I don’t think Grandmother will begrudge you a treat.”

And, indeed, the old woman did not mind. When she opened her cottage door at twilight, she raised a brow at Karaline’s clothes, smiled at the flowers, and put a finger to her lips.

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Image from Mysteryoftheiniquity.com