Sister and Brother
Heroic Ballads of Serbia
George Rapall Noyes & Leonard Bacon
Nine dear sons and a daughter, a mother bore and bred;
She reared them up till they were grown and the sons were ready to wed,
And the maiden ripe for marriage. And straightway asked for her
Three suitors, a ban, and a marshal, and a neighbor villager.
To the neighbor the mother would give her, but her brethren to the man
From over sea would give her. They said to her: “Marry the ban,
The great lord from beyond the sea. In every month of the year
We will come, and every week in the month, to see thee, sister dear.”
The sister obeyed them, and the ban from over sea she wed.
But behold a marvel! God’s pestilence struck her nine brethren dead,
And the solitary mother was left. So passed three years.
In her grief little Yélitsa the sister mourned with tears:
“Dear God, a mighty marvel! What great sin have I done
To my brethren, that of all of them cometh to me not one?”
The wives of her lord’s brethren reviled her sharp enow:
“O wife of our lords’ brother, a wanton one art thou,
Hateful unto thy brethren now hast thou come to be,
That not one of thy brethren comes here to visit thee.”
And little sister Yélitsa wept much both day and night;
But the dear God, in mercy, took pity on her plight,
And sent forthwith two angels:
“Go down, ye angels of mine,
To the white tomb of Yovan, the youngest of the nine;
Breathe light upon him with your breath; from the tomb frame him a steed;
From the earth make cakes for the festival all ready to his need;
Of his shroud make gifts, and get him in readiness to appear
Upon his wedding visit at the house of his sister dear.”
To the white tomb of Yovan the angels of God made speed;
They breathed upon him with their breath; from the tomb they framed him a steed,
And cakes from the earth for the festival all ready to his need;
Of his shroud they made gifts, and got him in readiness to appear
Upon his wedding visit at the house of his sister dear.
Swiftly went Yovan the feeble. When the house before him lay
His sister saw, and to meet him came forth a little way;
And O her tears fell bitter, all for her sorrow’s sake!
They spread their arms, and each other kissed, and sister to brother spake:
“Did ye not promise, brother, when ye gave me in marriage here,
That ye would come to see me every month in the year,
And every week in every month, to visit your sister dear?
But ye never came to see me, though three full years have fled.”
And little Yélitsa further unto her brother said:
“Why hast thou grown so dark, brother? ’Tis as though beneath the sod
Thou hadst been.” Said Yovan the feeble: “Be still, as thou lovest God.
A hard constraint is on me. I have wedded eight brothers well,
And served eight sisters by marriage; and, sister, it befell
That, when my brothers were married, we made nine houses white.
Therefore, my little sister, am I grown as black as night.”
And little sister Yélitsa got ready. She fashioned then
Gifts for her brethren and sisters; silken shirts for the men
She made, and, for her sisters, fair rings and bracelets fair.
And ever Yovan her brother besought her strongly there:
“Dear little sister Yélitsa, I prithee go not home,
Till on their wedding visit thy brethren to thee come.”
But Yélitsa would not turn back; her fair gifts she prepared.
Thence Yovan started homeward, and his sister with him fared.
When they were come to their home again, a white church stood thereby.
Said Yovan the feeble:
“Sister, I prithee tarry nigh,
Until I go behind the church; for here at the marrying
Of the fourth of our eight brethren, I lost my golden ring.
Let me go to seek it, sister.”
To his tomb went Yovan straight,
And little sister Yélitsa for Yovan there did wait.
She waited and sought him. Nigh the church a fresh grave she espied;
Suddenly she knew in sorrow that Yovan the weak had died.
Quickly she went to the white house. When she was come to the hall,
In the hollow rooms of the white house she heard a cuckoo call.
Nay, it was not a cuckoo blue, but her mother crying sore.
Yélitsa lifted up her voice as she came unto the door:
“Open the door, poor mother.” Said the mother thereunto:
“Get hence, thou pestilence of God, nine sons of mine that slew!
Their ancient mother, also, wilt thou smite stark and dead?”
And little sister Yélitsa lifted her voice and said:
“Poor mother, open now the door! No pestilence is here;
It is only little Yélitsa, and she is thy daughter dear.”
She opened the door. Each other they clasped their arms around,
Wailing like cuckoos. Mother and child fell dead upon the ground.