There once lived a young Romani man plagued by a love for two Romani women.
Every morning he would rise and think, Today, I will choose. The beautiful Darya or the industrious Marina. And every night, sated by Darya’s love and Marina’s cooking, he would go to bed undecided.
Soon, the maidens insisted he accept one of them for his wife. The villagers were beginning to talk, and gossip could not be afforded in a place where the difference between happiness and exile rested in one’s reputation. Ivan had little choice but to let one love go.
The night he carried his mother’s old betrothal ring to his bride’s door, the moon shepherded him with a vigilant glow, and in the distance, the wind picked at the surface of the lake Ivan fished every day. Along with Ivan, the moon and the wind seemed to fret. Could he truly commit his heart where it had split in two for so very long? To the left, on the other side of the lake, lay Darya’s hut, carved into an ancient oak rumored to hold the mystical powers of her sorcerer ancestors. Marina’s log house stood in the square to the right. Built by her merchant father out of the sturdiest of pines, its grand design and an iron ridgepole, topped with the family’s insignia, identified the dwelling as the fanciest in the countryside.
What can a fisherman’s son do, Ivan thought, if not try and better his station?
The wedding was a grand affair as such things go. Marina’s father loosened his pockets until the tables groaned under the mouth-watering dishes his wife and daughter created for the occasion. Drink was plentiful and company boisterous. Music sprung from balalaika strings while the bards entertained the crowd with tales of devils and fairies.
Marina made the perfect hostess. With the grace of a swan, she glided across the room, poured Medovukha into goblets and attended to every guest as if they were royalty. Upon seeing this, pride bloomed in Ivan’s chest, for he knew he had made the right choice.
That night joy abounded, and all believed it would stay for a while.
But the very next day, the church bells rang the frantic rhythm of tragedy.
Darya had gone missing.
A party searched the woods, but three days later the men returned to work and Darya, being a witch’s daughter, was quickly forgotten.
The very next day Ivan too resumed his duties, leaving Marina to tend the house. When he began to prepare his boat he discovered his lucky net was gone, and his mood, already sour, blackened. Bad luck for a fisherman, the other men said. But Ivan dismissed their superstitions, borrowed a spare and pushed on.
In the middle of the lake, as Ivan minded the net, murky thoughts pulled him under. Where had Darya gone? Could she not see why he had to choose Marina? If she loved him, why would she run away? He was mad at her for acting childish, but he also missed her fiercely.
Behind the Earth, the sun had fallen by the time Ivan tugged his boat up the banks of the lake. The moonless night reeked of algae, the calls of frogs and crickets piercing through the fog. A shadow separated from a nearby willow tree, and Ivan strained to see it approach.
“Darya? Darya. Is it really you?”
The woman stepped closer, her outline black for the lack of a moon. She raised a hand as if to touch Ivan’s face, but stilled.
“Ivanushka. My love. How could you marry another?” she asked.
He frowned, resolute not to show any indication of self-pity he had suffered moments earlier. “Is that why you ran like the devil was after you? Leave it up to you to act so foolish.”
“But I had to get away from the sounds of your wedding, far enough to not hear anything.”
Ivan gave her a stern look. She wore a dress with long wide sleeves and a hem stitched in gold thread. It made him smile. The dress was a gift he had brought her from a fair a year ago. Her hair fell down her back in a thick braid so heavy even the wind strained to pick at it, and though Ivan could not discern her features, his fingers begged to touch her delicate skin. Once his thoughts drifted, Ivan reminded himself that he was a married man now and his mind was a stone bridge, unmovable even by the strongest of urges.
“We can be no more, Darya. Go home. My wife is waiting.”
He began to walk up the bank toward the village and for a moment, it seemed she would heed. But then he heard soft footsteps and half-turned to see her, head bowed like that of an obedient child.
“I said go,” he grumbled.
“But there is nothing for me without you.”
And Darya followed Ivan until he climbed the steps of his house. She stood at the bottom and did not move, not even when he disappeared inside.
For two days, not a moment clean of doubt escaped Ivan. Had he wed the right girl? Meanwhile, Marina bustled around the kitchen and tossed furtive glances and smiles at him as she kneaded the dough for the Apple Baba pie. Whenever Ivan caught her looking, she blushed, taking him back to the last few nights, when she had proven her talents did not end at the ovens.
But no sooner did Ivan close his mind to Darya than she appeared again. The lake was a miser that day. Ever since the net had vanished, he had no luck catching fish, and after ten hours of breaking surface Ivan’s barrel held but four puny carp.
Darya wrung her hands and waited for him to leave the boat. Her dress was muddy at the bottom, and strands of hair escaped her braid.
“Why haven’t you gone home?” Ivan asked.
“There is no home without you.” Her voice trembled, as did her body. She hugged herself and gestured at the water. “My love for you would overflow this lake. My tears fill it even as I confess, and they will break its banks one day.”
Mesmerized, Ivan met Darya’s sorrowful gaze, and even in the dark, the sheen in her eyes was unmistakable. An urge to comfort her nearly flew him to her side. Instead, Ivan heaved the fish barrel over one shoulder to distract himself. “What is this witchery, woman? You must let me be.”
Darya dipped one hand into the lake, and rising, held it out to him. “You can taste the salt if you wish.”
Only then did Ivan’s senses return. “It’s a freshwater lake, little fool.”
“Why can’t you understand?” he muttered through his teeth. “I am with Marina now.”
The shudder was gone from her body, and she lifted her face like a queen before her subject.
“Look past the false bliss you’ve wrapped yourself in. I’m here because you want me still.”
And no matter how Ivan searched for denial, none came forth.
“Marina’s waiting,” he finally managed and strode away.
“And so am I.” The wind carried to Ivan’s ears before he disappeared around the corner.
He rushed home to find solace, but even in bed, next to Marina, the night offered little peace. Outside, the wind bellowed and whipped the roofs of the houses. And inside, each time poor Ivan closed his eyes, Darya beckoned. The woman had climbed his walls like ivy, clasped unto his newly hatched contentment with her merciless vines. He wanted nothing more than to feel satisfied with his life. Yet beneath Ivan’s rebellion against Darya’s persistence, his weakness for both her and Marina unexpectedly overwhelmed him.
Sitting up on the edge of the bed, Ivan brooded like the wind chasing absolution down the empty road. And with Darya back, it had become clear only one thing would bring it about.
To possess both women.
Ivan set out for the lake, his feet not his own, his heart aflame. It took but a moment to locate Darya waiting, as he predicted, near the boat. She rushed to him.
“I was a foolish man,” he exclaimed, clasping her hands in his.
To this she smiled and kissed his knuckles, and he noticed how cold she felt to his touch.
“You need a fire.”
“And now you’re here, my dear Ivan,” she said.
“Let us go home.”
“You mean you will stay?”
When Ivan nodded, Darya threw her arms around him, pressing her cheek to his chest. The dampness of her dress seeped through his shirt.
Pulling her after him, Ivan untied the rope that tethered his boat to the shore. “You need warmth before you catch your death. Come. We will celebrate our reunion in your soft feather bed,” he said, marveling at his own idiocy. Why had he ever thought this would be difficult?
Obediently, Darya entered the boat and sat across from Ivan, who began to row with great long strokes fortified with pride. Darya traced her fingers in the water, giggling whenever their eyes met. But the closer they approached the lake’s heart, the more wicked Darya’s laughter grew until it resembled her voice not at all. At first Ivan assumed she had caught a cold and was now in fits of a fever. If he touched her forehead, it would surely be burning.
“Calm yourself, angel heart,” he said, rowing faster. No one has ever found the bottom of Krivoye Lake, and it was rumored to be teeming with giant fish, monsters that could swallow a grown man. Though not a fool for old wives’ tales, Ivan had no desire to find out for himself.
She splashed him with a playful wink.
Again she splashed. Ivan yanked the paddles inside the boat and stood, but she never ceased her games, taken by some kind of a spell.
“Don’t be afraid of a little water, Ivanushka. It is not as cold as it seems.”
“Why should I be afraid?”
At that, Darya rose in one fluid motion. “Then take off your clothes,” she said with an unsettling urgency, “and swim with me.”
Ivan stole a glance at the lake he had fished since childhood, but hastily turned away. It yawned like the maw of a sinkhole.
“What is with you?” he asked. “I am to blame for making you wait, I know this much. But I’m here now, and my only wish is to take you home and keep you safe.”
An eerie silence descended. No trace of the wind, no song of the night creatures. Only water licking at the boat’s ribs.
A long, silvery tear slid down Darya’s cheek, and finally, after three days, the moon reappeared from behind the clouds.
Ivan beheld Darya’s face and staggered back to the boat’s edge. More tears escaped her. Only now, with the moonlight bright, Ivan glimpsed the truth. Not tears, but tiny fish wriggled out of the corners of Darya’s milky eyes. One by one, they plopped to the deck at her bare feet.
She cocked her head at the lake, her once beautiful face bloated and tinged blue. “This is my home now. This is my bed.”
Darya stripped off her dress and there, wrapped around her throat, stretched against her skin, was Ivan’s lucky net. Right below, a wicked gash claimed the expanse of Darya’s abdomen. From it, beasts of all kinds slithered and crawled; crabs pinching their claws, newts scurrying faster than a blink, and water bugs swarming out in such numbers that the deck began to breathe around Ivan.
“I don’t believe you,” he said. “Nobody saw you on the lake that day. You, you, your body would’ve floated up.” He covered his face. “What am I saying? This is mad.”
“All it took was a few large rocks to drag me under. I hardly felt it. But I heard your voice calling, begging me to come and take you away.”
Darya advanced and the smell of algae intensified threefold.
“You promised you would come home with me, Ivan,” she said, inches away, her breath stale and rusty. Before Ivan’s very eyes, her skin began to wither.
“I’m sorry,” he said. The only escape was to jump, yet a conviction that his own death lurked kept Ivan fixed in place. “For what I’ve done. To you. I am so sorry.”
“Let me take you home.”
When Darya’s lips touched Ivan’s, he shivered to his toes, then, before he could defeat his panic, the maiden dragged him overboard. They were gone with nary a splash and the lake shut the world out of its tomb forever.
At sunup, the locals found Ivan’s boat drifting on the current, but no one ever saw the young man again. Months after his disappearance, Marina married another. This one acquired more catch than the entire village folk combined, and Marina’s cupboards were never short of jars stuffed with pickled herring and pots of fish stew. Quickly, she grew famous. People traveled long distances across the countryside to marvel at the dishes rumored to invoke such overwhelming emotion that even the most stoic of characters were known to weep, and there were those among them who claimed that Marina’s tears for Ivan made her food taste so extraordinary.
And this is how Ivan’s wish was granted, though we shall never know if it made him truly happy.