Blossom Of The Fern
The woods afforded the only shade now. Even a tall, solitary linden tree was not mighty enough to protect a traveler from the harsh heat of midsummer. Jens had come a long way on foot, hoping to reach the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains before dark. He carried no drinking vessel, but would stop at a brook along the way, cupping his hands to splash water on his face several times and then drink it.
After hours of nothing but flat prairie, he began to see faint traces of mountains and the blue black forest beneath, appearing as a haze of shapes in the distance.
He had told no one about this trip. They would never understand. He thought back to that summer when he was five years old.
He had been playing with several children from neighboring farms. They were searching for four leaf clovers in a patch in the fields. A bee lighted on a purple clover bloom and one of the children tried to smash it with a rock.
"Don't do that!" Jens had cried. "He won't hurt you if you leave him alone."
"You're stupid," said the other child. "Why don't you go in the woods and find the fern blossom!"
The other children laughed at this remark. Jens imagined it was some awful joke and ran home, red faced.
Baba was sitting on a rock, whipping a bowl of manna and gooseberries, when the boy fell next to her, lungs hurting from running too fast in the hot sun. Baba never seemed to notice the summer heat. She wore a white cloth over her head only to keep the hair from her face.
"The fern blossom," Baba had said to Jens, still panting from running. Sweat and tears mingled on his youthful, tan face. "Ah, yes, the fern blossom." She had put down the large wooden bowl and set the spoon on a rock. Then, wiping her hands in a worn apron, she looked into the distance. Seeing his grandmother so calm and strong, Jens forgot the incident with the village children and sat up, hands under his chin, waiting for Baba's next words.
"I am too old," Baba said, "but all my life I have dreamed of finding it." To Jens' disappointment, she picked up the bowl and spoon again and began stirring and whipping.
"Baba, what about the fern blossom?" Jens cried.
"Tonight, when the sun is going down, I will tell you the story," Baba said with finality. Jens sensed that this story was too special to be told under a tree while she was making dessert for the family.
Baba died when Jens was fifteen. He felt the loss sharply, mostly because he would no longer hear stories of the wood spirits, of the 'kolls' - little men the size of a thumb, who played tricks on unwary travelers, about violins that played by themselves and of course, the search for the blossom of the fern. That soon became his favorite story.
As dusk fell on their little cottage, Baba would put down her knitting. Jens would then curl up on a hooked rug next to her rocking chair and closing his eyes, would be lifted by her gentle, low voice to places of wonderful and sometimes scary places. Baba had said that on the day of John the Baptist, when the night is shorter than any other time of year, the fern will bloom, but only for a very short time. If you sit and watch all night and you glimpse the bloom and then quickly catch it, you will have good luck for the rest of your life and be the hero of the village.
Jens had received a fine small knife in a leather sheath for his fifth birthday. He decided to make five notches on the bark of an old birch tree and mark his birthdays every year from then on. Each year, the previous notch would grow thicker and each year Jens felt his growth parallel that of the birch.
Ferns were common in the area, spreading their fanlike branches over the forest floor. Some were low lying, but with strong, treelike roots. Others, near a brook, would have little brown pods that rattled. Others still looked like the ric rac stitching of his mother's tablecloth. Because ferns were so common, almost like an unwanted weed, many people would search in the small forest nearby, hoping to suddenly see the blossom. They, of course, never admitted it, for fear of being laughed at, but that thought was often in their minds. No one had found it. All that they saw was green, lacy leaves, with little brown pods underneath, nothing more.
The time of the shortest night would find many people in the forests. They went to celebrate this change of the sun's ways, to make wreaths of flowers, to dance and to drink mead. But everyone threw secret glances at the abundant ferns.
Years passed and Jens took on beekeeping to help his family out. Honey was much desired in the village, for baking and to sweeten liquids for brewing. Jens was often seen among his hives with a large screen hood over his head and bees covering his arm. Bees had stung him so many times; his body was immune to any but the most severe doses of venom. He took special care of his bees and would even sing and talk to them. His honey was reputed to have healing qualities. When a child was sick, a spoonful of Jens' honey would bring the fever down or stop the cough.
Jens had just put the 23rd notch on the birch tree. His mother had baked a special cake dressed with almond paste and raspberry jam. She was a quiet woman who never chastised him. She was the reason he never went searching for the fern blossom. He felt she needed him at home. But each time the day of John the Baptist came, a few days after his birthday, he always hoped he would get the courage to go.
Walking back to the cottage, he decided to check on the hives. Fear gripped him as he saw two hives toppled over, broken and honeycombs lying on the ground. Bees were angrily swarming around, unable to continue their routine. Jens quickly set up two new wooden boxes so the bees could have a home again.
He couldn't sleep that night. Was it a fox, a wolf or a bear? Strangely, there was no sign of anything amiss by the chicken coops or the pigpens. Only the beehives were disturbed and broken.
He sat silently at Sunday dinner, which was always pork roast with caraway seed flavored sauerkraut and peeled, roasted potatoes. He wasn't able to eat. His mother didn't say anything. She always allowed him to work out his own problems.
Next morning Jens got up before daybreak, hoisted a small back sack over his shoulder and quietly slipped out of the cottage. Ever since Baba died, he knew somehow, sometime, he would have to search for that fern blossom. Everything else seemed to fade into the background, even his bees, his mother, and his home.
The local woods were well inhabited by people too poor to have a home. Children from the village would also be sent to pick mushrooms for the evening soup. Of course there were hunters ready to bag the fine wild rabbits that tasted so much better than the domestic kind. Somehow Jens did not feel the enchanted creatures his Baba talked of would want to live there. In particular, he didn't think the fern blossom could be found that close to home.
So he set out toward the northeast, where the land rose into hills which flanked the majestic Carpathian Mountains and where it was harder to travel. The woods at the base of the hills were thick and wild. Few people ventured there, except for that one special night of the year, because of the many brown bears and fierce, large wolves. Since Jens felt at home with his bees, somehow bears and wolves did not scare him. His wish to find the fern blossom outshone any fear he may have had of the dangers of the journey. His only weapon was his little hunter's knife held close to the waist in a leather sheath. The handle was made of birch wood.
His heart pounded as he neared the forest. The blue-black haze soon turned into a blue green and then he was there. The forest edge seemed peaceful and the floor was soft and safe looking. He knew not to trust this entrance. Just as bees looked harmless, buzzing about a flower bush, he knew the other side of these creatures. And if it held true for bees, why wouldn't it hold true for bears and everything else in nature?
The canopy of leaves and branches became denser and finally, the woods enveloped him in their cool mystery. A few rays of sunlight broke through and threw an amazing, long stream of gold onto moss-covered patches on the ground. He could not tell the time from the sun any longer. Instinct told him evening was soon upon him.
He saw the large trunk of a fallen tree, covered on one side with orange colored mushrooms. These mushrooms, of the fungus family, were twisted and curled and ugly looking, latching onto the bark of the dying tree. Yet they were good to eat. They would make a nice soup. Except that he was not going to do any cooking here. His only subsistence was a bag of oats, which he planned to crunch when he got hungry. Surrounding this fallen tree was a sea of cinnamon fern, the kind that looks light and airy, but cannot be pried out of the ground without a large axe.
The smell of moss, large bushes of ferns and the evergreen trees mingled with other scents of the forest into a fragrance of cool well being. As Jens sat, watching the colors of the forest change into deeper and deeper hues, he observed a strikingly bright red mushroom with white spots on it and a snow-white stalk. That was one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the woods. But it looked so beautiful, contrasted against the dark green and brown background.
Would the kolls trick him on this special night and lure him into a deadly trap? He quickly pulled the bag of oats from his backpack and started munching. He needed to keep a level head and maybe some food would help. He noticed that he had not heard any birds singing or any other animal sounds. Once in a while there would be the croak of a frog and what sounded like a cricket. Other than that, there was a profound silence.
Jens was awakened by the sound of men talking. He opened his eyes to a darkness punctured by the glow from a small campfire about 50 feet to his right. Trees blocked most of the view, but the smell of burning wood and voices of men carried easily. Jens knew the ways of nature enough to stay very still and breathe as quietly as possible. He hoped there was no dog to spot him and that he would not cause a branch to crackle near him.
"We've got to get these bears out of here," one of the voices said.
"Give me one more day," said another. "My face and hands are still as big as balloons. Just one more day, and we'll be on our way."
"We can't wait any longer," the other man answered. "The medicine is already wearing off the beasts. If we leave tomorrow, they will eat us alive before we reach Baia."
Jens' ears perked up. Baia was a town in a neighboring province. It was known for circuses and dancing bear shows.
"A fine choice I get – to die of bee stings or be dinner for a bear," the other man said. After a short silence he said, "You win, let's go."
Next Jens heard something that made him wince. That sound would haunt him for many years to come.
First there was a dull thud, followed by a deep, guttural sound as if coming from a cave. Jens had never heard anything like it. It was not a human sound. He knew it had to be a bear, but a very, very big one. He shook in terror and was surprised his leafy bed made no sound.
Then there were heavy thuds, over and over again.
Jens could only imagine what was happening. His breath seemed to stop and he wondered if he would die right then and there from lack of air. He had seen bears in the local woods quite often. They would stay to themselves, eating berries and roots and once in a while, a mouse or a small deer. He had never seen the 'horrible' dark bears that lived in this large forest. Rumor had it that some were as tall as 8 feet and weighed over a thousand pounds. How could these men have captured one of these monsters? The men had said 'bears,' so there had to be several of them.
The agonizing howl of the bear wiped any thought of danger from Jens' mind. He was just about to get up and jump these men, cutting them with his knife, when he heard the hiss of water on fire. Then the light of the campfire went out.
There were more thuds, the sounds of wooden clubs against furry skin, and anguished howls, but the sounds grew fainter and fainter and soon there was silence.
Little by little, the sounds of the forest began to return. A wolf howled in the distance, some tree creatures scampered, rustling leaves and a horde of crickets took up their droning calls. Jens began to relax and decided to check out the unwelcome campsite.
Taking a match from his pocket, he struck it against a nearby rock, watching a sulfured, blue flame reveal the blackened pile of charcoal. He brushed some wet debris aside and noticed a small glow. Apparently the men had not completely extinguished their fire. Jens realized this small glow could easily fan into a giant forest fire within a short time. He put out the wooden match and bending close to the ground, blew gently on the small red orange embers. They immediately grew into flames.
Jens cleared a circle around the bed of the old campfire and heaped kindling and larger sticks on it. Then he crossed his legs, leaned back against a lump of moss and prepared for an all night vigil of fern watching.
Trying to focus on the largest and most likely looking fern, he suddenly felt his blood run cold. The campfire highlighted a long, feathery fern leaf. It was covered with little white blooms. His mind raced, trying to remember details of the fern blossom story. Was it one large blossom, or many little ones? He couldn't remember. But he knew he had to grab them, whatever they were. Jumping up, he reached the fern leaf and crushed it into the palms of his hands. The pungent odor of crushed fern filled his nostrils.
Then Jens heard a heavy rustling above his head. It had to be a fairly large animal. He quickly moved away from the fire and hid behind a large tree trunk. The rustling grew lower and louder and finally a light brown animal about the size of a calf scampered down from a tall tree near the campfire. The animal didn't seem to notice Jens and began to move in the direction the men had gone earlier.
"A cub, a bear cub," Jens exclaimed. His voice echoed in the thick woods. The campfire suddenly disappeared and the last thing he remembered was a sharp pain in his stomach.
"Mother," Jens said softly as he opened his eyes. His mother was standing over him, lifting a cold compress onto his forehead.
"My dear boy," she said, tears in her eyes. "My dear boy, you are home safe."
There was a knock on the door. Jens mother smiled and walked to the door. Soon the small room was filled with dozens of villagers, led by the stout, red-cheeked master of the village, holding a large wreath of flowers and leaves.
"This is for you, Jens," for saving the Moldavia forest from going up in smoke. You are the hero of the provinces." Jens, unable to speak, saw a sea of smiling faces in the background, most of whom he recognized and some from other areas. The master of the village placed the wreath on the bed and began a speech directed at Jens. Though still groggy, Jens tried to listen.
Finally, the master wound down his speech and reaching over, hugged Jens. Everyone else followed, men and women and children.
"Mother, what happened, what did he say?" Jens asked when the crowd finally left.
"Oh Jens, you were so lucky. Maybe the kolls that Baba talked about saved you," she said, now smiling.
"Come on, mother, you know those are just fairy tales," Jens said, also smiling.
"Well, as best I can tell, this is what happened. The forester of Moldavia was checking on the merrymakers in the woods that night. He noticed a campfire burning and headed toward it. Fortunately you had cleared a circle around it, but it was just a matter of time before the flames would jump onto the dry branches a few feet away. He saw a figure, you, slumped on the ground nearby. You had apparently fainted from not eating for several days."
"I had some oats," Jens protested. "What about the bears, the men who made the first campfire? Did you hear about that?"
"Oh yes," his mother replied with emphasis. "Dirk and Smuts, from our own village were the culprits. They went to the deep forests to get the prized large bears that brought much gold in Baia. They put belladonna juice on honeycombs to tempt the bears and sedate them. Then they planned to march them to Baia, tied with heavy cord, beating them to keep them moving."
"I wonder if they broke my bee hives?" Jens wondered aloud.
"It was your healing honey that overcame the poison long before they reached their destination. The bears, one male, one female, attacked their captors Because of the mating season they were very fierce."
Jens remembered the howls in the night.
"There is not much left of Dirk and Smuts," his mother continued. "Oh, and the bear cub, he followed the scent and soon joined his mother and father."
"Mother, would you believe I found the blossoms of the fern?" Jens said after a pause. "I had them right in my hands."
His mother smiled. "The forester told me that he found you grasping a fern leaf in your hands."
"Did he see the blossoms?" Jens asked.
"The forester was amazed. He had been watching a particularly tall ash tree for years, hoping it would bloom. They only bloom every fifteen or twenty years. That ash tree was near your campfire. It finally decided to bloom and its tiny white blooms fell onto the fern leaves below." She put her hand on Jens' forehead, replacing the warm compress with a new, cold one.
"You were clutching a fern leaf covered with ash tree blossoms," his mother explained.
"The little cub," Jens said. "The little cub climbed town the tree to find his parents. He must have shaken the blossoms from that tall ash tree."
Mother and son sat silently in their little cottage. Finally Jens spoke, tears in his eyes.
"Mother, Baba was right. Maybe the tiny blooms were really the kolls in disguise and maybe they changed the real fern blooms into ash when the forester showed up." His mother looked at her son with disbelief. For a moment she thought Baba was in the room, sitting in her old rocking chair.
"Besides," Jens continued, grinning as he wiped tears from his face, "am I not the hero of the village?"