While walking one afternoon on the streets of the old part of Prague, I first saw three swans with their necks buried into the deep green waters of the Vltava, then five eagles swirling above the river in circles like a recurring dream. A little further, I saw a group of people gathered around the bridge intently watching something floating in water.
It was a mildly hot afternoon and I was returning to my room after listening to Dvořák at the Smetana Concert Hall in the Municipal House. The muslin heat of the sunlight, filling the day with an almost otherworldly air, made me feel tipsier than I was. I had had an entire bottle of a woody Côtes du Rhône before the concert and I was no longer sure if it was the light, the water, the earth, or my body that was moving. Earlier that afternoon, at the Concert Hall, I had been listening to one of Dvořák’s symphonic poems, Vodník. Literally ‘[they] from the water’, in Slavic mythology vodníks were water spirits that resembled old men, with faces like those of frogs, long green beards, and bodies covered in green muck like algae and dark fish scales. Vodníks were thought to have webbed hands, a piscine tail, and smouldering red-orange eyes. Dvorak’s Vodník, inspired by the collection of folk tales published in 1853 by Karel Jaromír Erben under the title Kytice, narrated the story of a water goblin, who drowned people and trapped their spirits in glass jars. The symphonic poem begins with the vodník sewing a green coat and a pair of red boots while singing to the moon. It was an old folk song about his upcoming wedding. This somehow reminded me of a Bengali ghost I often heard about as a child, shakchunni: the spirit of a married Bengali woman, dressed in saree and shell bangles, walking the forests of rural Bengal with reversed feet. Though sometimes she had been spotted on Camac Street in Calcutta, I liked thinking about her there, in Prague.
Later on in the symphonic poem, somewhere else or perhaps somewhere same, a mother warns her young daughter not to go near the stream that evening lest she drowns or is drowned. The young daughter, however, does not listen to her mother. She drowns into the water abyss but as she is sinking into the green, the vodník takes her away to marry her. After a child is born from this strange deeply dark marriage, the young woman yearns to return to her own mother who must have been certain of her death. The vodník allows the woman to meet her mother on the condition of her returning before the ringing of the evening bells. Sometimes, while listening to the poem, it seemed to me that the young woman was not from an old Slavik folk tale, but an old Bengali folk tale. No, it seemed that the woman was not from a tale at all, she was a modern woman, to be found right now walking the streets of Prague, Paris, Kandy, Jaisalmer.
At the end of the poem, the young woman refuses to join the vodník who comes to pick her up. Enraged, the vodník leaves and returns, like a wolf, with their young child, and kills the infant in front of the mother’s cottage. The young woman opens the door and finds the headless body of the baby lying in blood, the small head rolling a bit further ahead.
As I listened to the end of the poem, I was reminded of the exquisitely eerie marshy mangroves of Sundarbans between West Bengal and Bangladesh where I had once stayed in a mud house with an English friend of mine, Catherine. Not many people know this, but Charles Baudelaire did not, in fact, get off the boat to Calcutta from France. He wrote Les Fleurs du Mal in the beautiful forests of Bengal. About 110 kilometres from the city of Calcutta lie the Sundarbans, or the beautiful forests. The colour of the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal resembles that of the Vltava. The water is green and salty, vegetal crocodiles roam comfortably in search of prey while your feet sink in the marshy land as tiny blue crabs crawl on your bare clay-covered legs. The mangroves look like threatening armed strangers, as corpses of baby goats float by. The beautiful forest, like a lover, keeps an eye on you. It constantly watches your throat. It has known, by heart, your human anatomy for centuries. It knows which one of your glands should be chewed. Inside the uterus of the forest lives the Royal Bengal Tiger, whose one look stuns the souls of both scorpions and swans. The honey-gatherers of the village pray to Bon-bibi, the lady of the forest, la dame de la forêt, before entering the marshes of the mangroves. Some wear a lion mask on the back of their heads to fool the tiger, but it is always the tiger that fools them. The paw aims at the neck, then the vertebrae, knowing well that feet can only sink further. The honey from the Sundarbans tastes sweet with a hint of iron, like a lover’s bruised lips.
At night, when you lie on your back on a wooden boat, you feel weightless like thought. After some time, it is as if the boat beneath you has disappeared and you are floating like a corpse in nothing but black. Wherever your skin comes into contact with black water, planktons glow lighting up, momentarily, the black tunnel that has no light at its end. In the folk tales of the Bengal delta region the aleya, ghosts of the marshes, take on the form of strange light apparitions, confusing and drowning the fishermen into the deep waters. Who took the form of a light apparition to drown me? I once read that Gaelic fishermen placed quartz crystals on coasts to lure salmon. Someone placed quartz crystals on a Gaelic shore at midnight, to catch me like salmon.
The muffled but persistent sound from the crowds in the Prague streets brought me out of my stupor. I saw that the group of people on the bridge had increased. I had already almost crossed the bridge while remembering the Bengal forests, but I walked back out of curiosity. I wanted to know what was in the river. I gathered from the noise and the lost dappled words that it was a corpse. I peered down into the river and there it was: my body in the Vltava. I looked beautiful. I felt weightless like thought. It felt like the boat beneath me had disappeared and I was floating in black.
Saudamini Deo is a writer, photographer, and translator. Her translation of Bhuwaneshwar’s short stories, Wolves, was published by Seagull Books in 2021. Her translations of Rajkamal Chaudhary’s short stories, Traces of Boots on Tongue, and poems of Alok Dhanwa, The World is Made Every Day, are forthcoming from Seagull Books. She is the co-editor of the esoteric literary journal RIC Journal. She lives in Jaipur, Rajasthan.