UKRAINE in the Time of Rusalki (So We Don't Forget)

Submitted into Contest #149 in response to: Write about two people who form a bond with each other through music.... view prompt

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Creative Nonfiction Contemporary Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Ukraine in the Time of Rusalki

(So We Don’t Forget)



(The rusalka of the Ukrainian songs are derived from ancient magical incantations that were supposed to secure a rich harvest or attract a lover to a girl. More recent songs often have a love plot in which an abandoned girl is transformed into a poplar, a young wife is poisoned by her mother-in-law, or a young bride commits suicide to escape from a repugnant husband.)



It’s June, the time of the year in which the rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous. At this time, they were supposed to have left their watery depths in order to swing on branches of birch and willow trees, combing their long greenish hair with a hairbrush made of fish bones.


True believers believed with their whole hearts. Swimming during this week was strictly forbidden, lest rusalki drag a swimmer down to the river bed. Nana had always ended her tale with the words, ”And my precious, Dmitri, the beautiful mermaid rusalki, would lure him to her side, trap him in the lengths of her long green hair. And then she would pull him into the dark waters of the lake where she would tickle the prince to death.” And of course, Nana would tickle him until he almost wet his jammies.


The centuries old folktales of Rushalki had fascinated common folk and writers from the times of the first mermaid tales. And not just writers, but composers as well.


Antonín Dvořák, on June 12, 1900, wrote to his friend Alois Gobl about his excitement:


“I am now working on a new opera and I’ve already completed the first act and I also intend to finish the instrumentation this month. My new opera is once more a fairy tale, with words by Jarosl. Kvapil; it is called “Rusalka”. I am filled with enthusiasm and joy that my work is going so well.”


Later that same year, his beloved opera is debuted and begins to spread. As it enchants audiences worldwide, it gains mysterious power in its ability to touch the hearts, the very souls, of its fans.


Critics boast:

.The music for the opera is at once both tender and dramatic. Dvořák manages to evoke images of moonlight reflecting on the black lake and leaves rustling in the dark forest. The musical score is hauntingly beautiful and mysterious and, at times, even sinister. However, it is always splendid. The audience favorite is always the aria finale:


Rusalky’s “Song to the Moon”


Moon, high and deep in the sky

Your light sees far

You travel around the wide world

and see into people's homes.

For at least momentarily

let him recall of dreaming of me.

Illuminate him far away,and tell him,

tell him who is waiting for him

!If his human soul is, in fact,

dreaming of me,

may the memory awaken him!

Moonlight, don't disappear, disappear!





The woods awoke. Trees as ancient as this land joined verdant boughs to ring the lake in a cocoon of silent secrecy.


Leaves swirled, pirouetted in the soft breeze and flitted over his hot, exhausted body. Birch branches swayed and crossed in a timeless dance. A blazing kaleidoscope of debris lands. A lone soldier looks up at that moon.


Time ceased to exist as an entity as day bled into night and into the next morning like blood seeping out of a mortal wound as it escaped to soak the damp, fetid earth. Dmitri could have lain there but a minute, or a day, or weeks. His tortured body floated in the altered present, oblivious to the passage of time.


Meanwhile the deep still waters of the lake are stirring. It's been days since the Ruskis had crossed the border and streamed across in hopes of cowering their Ukrainian brothers into submission. Tens of thousands of them had tromped across the border, bullied their way through the small towns on their way to Kiev. Trampled any human remnants of their shared brotherhood into the warming spring soil. In a scene as old as the biblical Cane and Abel tale, blood of brothers seep into that soil, feeding the seedlings of the Ukrainian spring plantings. Both sides wonder what the crop will bring when all this aggression fades.


Dmitri is a child of the Ukrainian land, steeped in the folklore of his grandparents whom he has lived with since both parents had died during an earlier Russian incursion. Since a young boy, Dmitri had sat at his grandmother’s feet, soaking in the ancient tales of the Ukrainian history.


“Nana, Nana”, he’d entreat her, pulling on the hem of her rough house dress. “Please, please, please, tell your favorite grandson a story." And Nana would let a small, proud smile touch her mouth and a burst of heartfelt love would shine out on the blond headed, blue eyed grandson.


What a tremendous gift he had been to her in her lonesome old age; but she often felt selfish, not being able to share him with his dead parents, and keeping him off and away from the vagaries of the big city.


Nowadays, most Ukrainian young people dreamed of running away from their roots to find their fortunes in the big urban centers. She already was preparing for the time when Dmitri would leave her to seek his own fortunes. Such an innocent. She worried about how he would fare away from his village roots.



And he’d run to the shelf above the dinner table to grab the story book in case Nana had run out of her own tales. Like many Ukrainian nana’s, Dmitri’s nana had a yellowed, water marked well fingered copy of Gogol’s book of fairy tales, gleaned from his scouring the countryside for the remnants of such folklore in the last century. Most every hut, cottage, manor home could boast a copy of one or both of his well--read collections. And Dmitri was a child of the third generation to immerse itself in the deep, dark favorites.


By the time he was eight or nine, he was able to recite the names and duties of all the Rusalki for the last seven or eight centuries. He knew most of their stories by heart. He loved them and even into his teens he had both believed and doubted their existence.


During rusalki week, at the beginning of the summer, the nymphs are supposed to emerge from the water and climb into weeping willow and birch trees until night, when they dance in rings in the moonlight. Grass grows thicker where they trod.


Dmitri struggles to survive. If I can just hold on until help comes. If I can just keep hidden from those marauding Ruskis. But his wounds, in his side and his legs, are still bleeding like a son of a bitch. He’s taken and ripped a sleeve off his shirt uniform, tied it a round his legs to help staunch the bleeding, but there is not much he can do for the wound in his side. He has crammed his undershirt into the leaky hole, but he knows he needs help and antibiotics soon. The yellowish green pus oozing out is worrisome and the stench lets him know his time is counting down.


Hiding out under the bower of fallen trees has afforded him a measure of safety, screening him from the enemy’s view, but he can’t hold out much longer without medical a ttention.


If only I hadn’t lost my cellphone in the rush to avoid the falling debris from the Flacker that got shot out of the sky. Sure I back tracked to try to recover it, but that’s how I got sighted and almost killed.


His buddy Alek had been mortally wounded trying to help him, and he’s had to abandon his body to hide, dragging his wounded leg behind him, hoping the enemy would not find trail. His plan is to retrace his steps when he is able to walk; to go back and bring his brother Alek home. I can't bear the thought of him, lying alone, with no one but me knowing he's no longer alive. My brother, my friend, it should have been me. Oh, how I wish it had been me.


But this was the first weeks in June, the time of the Rusalky, and the woods were alive. The wood sprites emerged from the dark lake depths, a nd the trees blew in the wind, and the wind rustled up the leaves and blew them helter-skelter over the woodland floor.


It’s been hours, maybe days, since the enemy soldiers marched through, time was fluid and he lost track of time


The words of his friend drift back to him.


“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”


His best friend, Olek, had spent some time at university and liked to spout Shakespeare at every opportunity. Dmitri remembered one of the last times the two had drunk tankards of ale together, raising them high, quoting the words of Shakespeare, celebrating the exciting path they had just chosen to take. They'd enlisted together, to fight those blasted interlopers, to save their homeland


Lying in his leafy bower, with time suspended, Dmitri has plenty of time to mourn the brevity of his twenty years on this earth. Right before the Russian incursion he had driven into Kyiv, ticket in his back pocket. Nana knew his deep love for tradition and the folk tales she had read him.


"Here,"she had said, leaning in to kiss him on his cheek, placing the precious ticket in his hands. "I knew you would enjoy this. It’s being performed next week, just a couple performances. It’s probably the last time it will be performed for awhile if a war is truly coming."


" Happy birthday, Dmitri.. If I felt better, I would go with you. But I’m sure you will enjoy it enough for the both of us. Enjoy, darling. I saw it when I was young, back before you were even born. Just bring me back the program and good memories."


He had hugged her, and then looked at the gifted ticket. A front row seat to Dvorak’s Rusalky, the opera he wrote over a century ago. Dmitri had a Spotify link to the music, and had played the aria finale to the point where, if the music had been on a celluloid record, it would have melted and disintegrated.


Later, when Nana asked him, "So, Dmitri, how was Rusalka, as good as you thought it would be?"


He was suffused, "It was unbelievable. It’s amazing how it rings so true even after one-hundred-twenty years. Three acts of sheer genius, from the wood sprite, to her ugly father, to the young prince she loved, to the sad way he died. I just loved it all. But my favorite part came at the second intermission, when they introduced some of the celebrities in the audience. Guess who was there, Nana."


"It was the "Grey Wolf," you know, the hero Oleksandr Oksanchenko. They introduced him from the stage and he stood up and even gave out his autograph later on. And at the finale aria, he and I stood together to honor the moon. It was magical. We all stood, holding hands with our neighbors, throughout the entire “Song to the Moon.” Wish you could have been there with me. Truly the highlight of my life.”




On Sunday, day six since the Russian invasion, Col. Oleksandr Oksanchenko stands in the cockpit of his Su-27 Flanker fighter jet. (Ukraine Ministry of Defense) his distinctive patch on the pocket of his rough Ukrainian uniform. For such a dramatic heroic symbol, the patch may seem superfluous.The children's cartoon, “Once Upon a Dog,” is a 1982 adaptation of a Ukrainian folktale where an old wolf and his former enemy, an aging watchdog, help each other out in their graying years.


He gives in to an old superstition and rubs the patch. He whispers, “God willing, duty calls."


Oleksandr pulls on his helmet, snaps the chin strap in place, leaving his ear bud to accompany today's mission with the beautiful strains of that haunting Dvorak aria.



“Grey Wolf” has resurrected his career as ace aviator for the Ukrainian Air Force, reenlisting after retiring over four years ago, to do his duty, fending off the encroaching Russian forces. For what good is a hero, if not for heroic deeds?!


On this day, "Grey Wolf," hero of the Ukraine, has succeeded in luring the Russian attack forces away from the Ukrainian troops far below, defending their capital city of Kyiv. Luring them away to their doom, just as the rusalki had done for centuries.


The soaring notes at the finale of this operatic favorite, Dvorak’s romantic “Song to the Moon” are the last sounds he hears. The haunting strains soar with him through the precious moments before the Russian missiles blast him out of the sky. His Su-27 Flanker bursts into flames and a millions pieces, incinerating all life.


“God willing, duty calls.”


His Su-27, now in infinite pieces, spread out and fall over a verdant woodland surrounding a dark lake with black waters and lurking rusalki. Within, Dimitri looks up towards the moon and views the sparkling kaleidoscope of debris descending.


In a small Ukrainan home, Nana sits, tears streaming down her leathered, wrinkled cheeks onto the well-read book of folktales, fondly stroking the pages in memory. She doesn’t know it yet, but she already mourns for the child she raised to the almost grown up young man who may never live to experience all life has to offer. She can only sit and pray. And hope.



Dmitri takes his final breaths with the remnant strains of the aria ringing in his ears. Such a shame, such a waste. He’d never gotten to meet his rusalki, never known the passionate kiss of a lover, never known the grasp of a newborn on your finger. All his regrets and losses are offered up on the altar of what? Patriotism? Duty? Love of country and family. His heart and soul pour out with his blood onto the dark earth of the Ukrainian soil. In the words of the aria.


For at least momentarily

let him recall of dreaming of me.

Illuminate him far away,

and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!

If his human soul is, in fact,

dreaming of me,

may the memory awaken him!

Moonlight, don't disappear, disappear!


And a deep green verdant patch of grass has already begun to grow...not where rusalki danced, but where heroes trod.

June 10, 2022 17:13

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15 comments

Michał Przywara
05:37 Jun 13, 2022

It's important to remember those who perish in these conflicts, and I wasn't aware of the Grey Wolf, so thank you for writing about him. But it's also so very sad, when you consider how idiotically pointless this "special military operation" is; how brutal and callous. How many thousands, or tens of thousands, or more, will be forgotten? How many civilians? Children? The Internet and social media give us an unprecedented look at what's happening as it happens, and it's all just such a cynical waste of life. But then again, maybe every war i...

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Felice Noelle
16:14 Jun 13, 2022

Michal: I got interested in the rusalki (rusalka, rusalky) when researching Ukrainian folktales. There was a time, apparently, when Ukrainians were considered less than by the Russian brothers, who destroyed a lot of their culture, including folk songs and tales. I read some of them that have been more recently recovered and recorded. The backstory of how Dvorak wrote his opera Rusalka was fascinating. And the backstory of Gogol, the author, was interesting as well. I thought it relevant to recognize what is going on, as the Russian ...

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Philip Ebuluofor
09:17 Aug 15, 2022

Fine work Felice. It flowed.

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Chris Campbell
15:00 Aug 09, 2022

Hey Maureen, you haven't submitted anything for a while. Hope all is well.

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Yves. ♙
20:00 Aug 07, 2022

This was such an interesting idea, the mix of art and war especially. I love myths about monsterwomen and definitely have interest in this one as someone with a Slavic background-- I used to go through fantasy encyclopedias searching for all the 'Russian' myths! Thanks for sharing.

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Chris Campbell
01:08 Jun 20, 2022

Maureen, this is a beautifully woven fable that seems to weave through time but stay in the current moment. It's poetic and poignant, and a great read. Well done! Your line, "Trampled any human remnants of their shared brotherhood into the warming spring soil" is an accurate and very poetic description of Russia's tactics. Their brutal strategy is exactly what they have been doing in Syria for years. Historically, I recall a similar incursion by Oliver Cromwell into Ireland. He went in all guns-a-blazing too. He awarded stolen land to his ...

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Patrick Samuel
13:10 Jun 16, 2022

Some say great writing is like poetry. I say it's like music. This is both. Great horror in litterature as the capacity to turn the worst into something beautiful : not as a way to deny its truth but to make it palatable enough to face it, to help us deal with it should we encounter it in real life and hopefully survive it. Great art awakens and bolsters our humanity. It's a matter of survival for our souls, and this is what makes this story important. "Trampled any human remnants of their shared brotherhood into the warming spring soil... ...

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Felice Noelle
16:34 Jun 16, 2022

Patrick: Your reaction to my story touched my heart, tears to my war and world weary eyes. I am profoundly appreciative that you related to the story, but, as always, sad at the condition we humans find ourselves in yet again....the events that give us a narrative that we should really be fo"rgetting. I just read a short novel, based on well-researched events, that helps me gain perspective on all this warring craziness: The Legend of Lilia", a true story about a Russian young woman, raised under Stalin's regime, who learned to fly at ...

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Patrick Samuel
17:34 Jun 16, 2022

Hey Maureen, Don't sell yourself short and think you don't have the expertise to critique my writing. Yours is at least as good if not better. Glad I was targeted by the critique circle along with Kevin Broccoli. He's a terrific writer too and his story for this contest is quite moving. (You really need to read his "Dracula in the Morning" which is a hoot, if you need your spirits lifted.) Haven't read The Legend of Lilia, but your comment about war and politics turning friends into enemies and back again reminded me of one of my favorite b...

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Felice Noelle
17:54 Jun 16, 2022

Patrick: Your story, "Southern Comfort........". was at the top of my favorites list. And I have a lot of good stories on my list. If you happen to see a little of your writing in one or two of mine, it did not happen accidentally. I loved the newspaper reviews you included, as well as all the insider details. Just really grabbed me. Notice I took your lead and added a review from the papers in my latest. Take the copy as a si'sncere compliment. I thought the story you wrote was genius, and can remember to this day how I felt when I...

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Patrick Samuel
18:15 Jun 16, 2022

Wow, Maureen, I had no idea and am incredibly flattered that my story had such an influence on yours! I must confess I hadn't made the connexion, which proves you found a voice of your own to tell the story. I have to admit it was kind of daunting to come up with a follow-up to that one. I don't know if it's the best I've ever written but it's probably the one that came off best of those I posted here. After a while I remembered that the most important thing is not to pressure yourself into living up to the previous one but write from the h...

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Felice Noelle
00:36 Jun 15, 2022

Cindy: I find the connection with people we know to be fascinating. Perhaps you need to write a story to keep our attention on this war. I read a story by Irene Ivy that I liked this week. She really delves into some cultural and historical details in a great story. Give it a read. It might motivate you to write yours. Maureen

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Cindy Strube
16:51 Jun 14, 2022

Maureen, Thank you for this. You wove the different aspects together very touchingly. I love Dvořák’s music. (My grandma was a piano teacher who focused on classical composers.) Tying memories of the performance/the folk tale that inspired it/the history of invasion/current horror - good interpretation of the prompt. I enjoyed your descriptions of the woodland - the beautiful serenity mingled with the terrible loss of life. The close cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine just make this war all the more damaging. I have a friend who has...

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Felice Noelle
00:34 Jun 15, 2022

Cindy: You know I always aim to get readers to relate to something in my story or to dredge up a memory close to their heart. Thanks for reading and commenting. Maureen

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Felice Noelle
17:25 Jun 10, 2022

Readers: I write this to honor "Grey Wolf" and the countless soldiers, aviators, and other brave souls who are in the throes of this terrible war. I am sure his story of courage and sacrifice are acted out in many, many more acts of heroism....on both sides. For let us not forget, the opposing forces are old brothers who have mothers and fathers, and lives they may never go back to. Let them not be forgotten. Let us keep them always in our thoughts and prayers.

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