The walk through the forest seemed to go on forever, and even Yurek, who was used to long journeys on foot, yawned once in a while and made sweeping movements with his arms to move them and stimulate his weary body.
It was the fifth day of their journey together. From the time Nushka freed Yurek from the spell of the Vila, he paradoxically distanced himself from her and behaved in a way that sometimes even amused Nushka: he watched her closely when she listened to the voice of the trees and the earth and wanted to know which way she was going when she felt like going away for a while to walk in solitude. He didn’t talk to her as eagerly as before. Having previously dealt with the talkative and laughing version of Yurek, Nushka was surprised by this reticence the most.
Clinging to the horse’s back with half-open eyes, she watched the passing trees. The forest had thinned a bit, and the warm evening sun peeked through the trees, seeking one last contact before drowning beneath the western horizon. After a long time, each tree looked like a copy of the previous one in Nushka’s eyes, and the horse’s and Yurek’s walk created a monotonous rhythm. All this put her into a state of half-asleep where she could only see what was directly in front of her eyes, even her thoughts seemed to have gone to rest.
At some point Yurek stopped, let out a long sigh and said:
– I dream of a fragrant pool of warm water and a pile of roast meat
Awakened Nushka straightened her back and looked around, but nothing indicated that Yurek’s dream had come true.
– Tomorrow morning, Yurek – she murmured
– Tomorrow we may reach the city… or we may not. But meat is definitely what I… – Yurek stopped in the middle of a sentence and pointed his finger to the right of Nushka, concentrating his tired eyes on something.
Nushka looked in that direction and realized that they were at the edge of the forest, because in the near distance to her eyes appeared vast fields of golden grain. She was happy to see this, so she clapped her hands.
– You know him? – Yurek frowned
Nushka looked at him questioningly.
– Some old man is sitting there – Yurek began to intensively stick his finger in the air, believing that in this way he more accurately indicated the location of the mentioned old man.
After a moment of scanning the space in front of her with his eyes, Nushka saw a small, stocky figure illuminated by the glow of the setting sun. It was someone who looked like a shrunken old man. He was sitting at the edge of the forest, letting the golden rays warm the side of his face, or maybe he was dozing sitting up, she couldn’t tell without seeing him clearly. Yurek sloppyly tied the horse to a nearby tree and sighed:
– At least I’ll have someone to talk to…” and he slowly moved towards the stranger
Nushka was surprised by these words, but she kept silent about it, letting her interest in the mysterious gentleman resound louder than her other thoughts. As they approached the figure, they noticed that a large depression in the ground separated them from him. The walls of the hole were covered with tangled roots of the trees. As they walked around it, they noticed more and more the extremely strange appearance of the motionless man. They were quite close when the bright sun blinded them for a moment and only after a while they were able to notice this creature in its full glory.
– Oh my god! – Yurek exclaimed, grabbing his head and taking a step back abruptly. – Good mo… morning… good evening.
In front of them sat a squat old man who was now staring sleepily at Yurek. He had a calm expression, old, worn clothes, and an unusually large nose, wrom which dripped thick, green-yellow mucus. The man was breathing through his mouth, because, as you might have guessed, air had no way to get through the tight curtain of disgusting goo.
Despite the long hours that had passed since the last meal, Nushka felt as if the contents of her stomach had suddenly tripled, coming dangerously close to her throat.
The old man laughed softly, with a slightly more violent exhalation, splashing some of the contents of his nose onto his beard.
– Sit down, sit next to grandpa – he said gently to the newcomers.
– Ugh – Yurek made a sound full of suffering, as if he was about to die – what are you doing here, old man?
– I’m very lonely, I’m glad to see you
– And what happened that you are alone? – Yurek asked, then gave Nushka a look that almost screamed “No wonder”
– I had a family, a wife as beautiful as Devana herself, cheerful and ruddy children, but I lost them all. And I cried, I cried, I cried until my nose was completely clogged from crying, and now no one wants to look at me anymore.
Nushka blinked in surprise, feeling as if suddenly those hideous slimes were getting smaller and smaller in her eyes. Yurek stopped looking away from the man and sat down on the grass a few meters from him.
– What’s your name, old man? – he asked
– I am Belun, husband of beautiful Whitehead, father of children with white souls. Everyone’s gone, I’m alone. – a tear rolled down Belun’s cheek
Nushka looked at the man with interest and sympathy. She still didn’t understand how the bond between a man and a woman could be so strong.
– How long ago was that? – Yurek asked
– Eh, old man doesn’t remember. Two hundred, maybe, springs ago…
– So long ago – Yurek was surprised – what do you miss?
– You know what for, boy – Grandpa laughed heartily, getting rid of a few hanging slimes
Yurek laughed as well, and Nushka looked from one to the other.
– But…- the man interrupted the laugh – my Whitehead was good, she was sweet, she made me a home, and now I don’t have one, because without her I can’t find a new one. And you, boy, do you have your home?
– I don’t, Belun, but I don’t dream of it. I dream that this hollow under your feet will be filled with warm, fragrant water that will soothe my fatigue.
– Oh yes – mused the old man – that’s a good wish. – For now. Not backwards, not forwards, now.
They all sat in thought for a long time. The presence of Belun brought an overwhelming calm.
– And what’s your whitehead like, boy? – asked Belun, looking from under half-closed eyelids at Nushka.
– Not mine – replied Yurek firmly – sometimes I’m afraid of her, sometimes I like her. Sometimes she runs away from me, sometimes he throws blueberries at me, he doesn’t know much about jokes. She’s a wild woman.
Belun smiled softly but cheerfully.
– So she is as she should be.
They sat for a moment in silence, Nushka had a bundle of thoughts in her head: “what is this Yurek about?”. Belun spoke again:
– I’ll go on, but I have only one request
– Ah? – Yurek replied
– Help me blow my nose
Yurek and Nushka stiffened in horror. There was a silence, during which they both prayed to the heavens that by some miracle Belun would forget his request. However, he pulled a large piece of rag from his sleeve and made an encouraging gesture towards Yurek
– Can’t you do it yourself? – Yurek asked
– I can – Belun replied calmly – but someone’s caring hand is more pleasing than your own – he added, and another tear rolled down his cheek
– It’s time for us – Nushka spoke for the first time, grabbing Yurek’s arm. He got angry and ostentatiously snatched his arm from her gentle grip.
– Don’t you have a bit of empathy?! – he huffed at her, then got to his feet and pulled out his own handkerchief – these wild women are only thinking of one thing!
Yurek approached Belun and, with an internal struggle raging inside him, reached with his handkerchief to the dangling boogers. He managed to wipe only a little, and the handkerchief was ready to be thrown away.
– I’m sorry, old man, this is too… – before he finished, Belun pointed to a pile of rags lying nearby. Yurek wrung his hands:
– Are these your tissues?
The man nodded. Resigned, Yurek jumped down, where the man was sitting, to have easier access to him, and began the unpleasant process of emptying Belun’s huge nose of the sticky mucus. Nushka basically didn’t believe what she was seeing and wasn’t sure if she was more amused or disgusted by it. Only after four large rags had been used did he encourage the old man to blow his nose, which practically doubled the amount of discharge. At one puff, Belun’s nose was so clean that he could hear the lively sound of exhaled air. Suddenly his eyes lit up, he jumped to his feet and exclaimed:
– Haha! I’m free! I blew out my grief! I blew out the longing! I’m coming to you, darling!
The figure of the old man grew considerably and in the luminous fog he turned into a beautiful, tall man, whose figure was white as snow and dazzled more than the sharp, setting sun. His face assumed a joyful expression, his eyes sparkling with life. His smiling face still had some of that tired, snotty old man in it, but it was bubbling with inner light. He turned to the stunned Yurek:
– I am Belun and I remember your wish. You have relieved me of my worries, and now I will relieve you of your fatigue
Yurek felt warmth under his feet. A hollow in the ground surrounded by roots slowly filled with warm, steaming water, over which single fireflies appeared. The roots of the trees had grown to form wide seats in the water, and the scent from the water was like violets warmed by the sun. A live fire was lit right next to the water, and a juicy roast was standing over it. Seeing the speechless Nushka and Yurek, Belun laughed again and shouted goodbye:
– I am Belun and I’m going back to my Whitehead and children!
After these words, his figure dissolved in a luminous glow that rose up and glided into the unknown.
Having regained his voice after a long time, Yurek howled madly with joy, then tore off his clothes and threw then outside the pond to lie comfortably on the seat.
Nushka, on the other hand, stared at Yurek, not knowing how it was possible that the boy’s act of kindness towards the old wanderer grabbed her heart more than when he risked his life to save her from death.