The lake had always been there—as was the nature of lakes—but that spring, it began to move. It crept forward at night, stretching dark tentacles toward the village. People whispered that it had changed color, more green now than blue, more black even than green.
“Snowy winter,” the blacksmith explained.
“Melted too fast,” agreed widow Zelenková.
“It will soon shrink back,” said the starosta, whose job it was to take care of the village and its people and whose forum was the pub.
Young men nodded, drank their beer, and laughed too loudly.
But Old Man Radek, stooped in the corner, fingered the ribbon still tied to his hat band, frayed and bled of color over the years. “Better check the watermill.”
Everyone pretended not to understand what he meant.
Old Man Radek hadn’t always been old. By the time he was twelve, he could unseat any village boy in tug of war and beat even the men in wood-chopping contests. He was so strong at sixteen that when he picked Dáša up at Easter and threw her into the lake to bring health all year, he threw her so far she couldn’t find her footing. He dove in to rescue her, and she laughingly pulled him under.
That year, too, the lake crept up all its dry arms, reaching toward the village. The mill kept misbehaving, its sluice gate letting the water run at absurd times, turning the great waterwheel when there was nothing to grind, emptying the stream’s power uselessly into the ever-darkening lake.
Dáša and her parents blamed the sluice gate mischief on local boys. The same ones who had put honey in the village girls’ hair at the last dance, sawed most of the way through the third rung of Farmer Nedvěd’s ladder, and dyed Shepherd Procházka’s lambs blue.
Then Petr disappeared. Petr never stayed long, so no one took his leaving very seriously, other than to complain of his bad manners. He drifted through every few months, worked several days at the mill, then moved on. Radek didn’t like Petr much, mostly because Dáša did. She always baked his favorite cake and listened with wide eyes to the stories of his travels.
Wandering Petr left that summer without a word of farewell, half a day’s work undone.
“The scoundrel,” grumbled Dáša’s father.
“Never took him for a thief,” Dáša’s mother said. “But my best butter crock is gone. The one with the blue lid.”
Dáša insisted the crock must have been misplaced. Radek gritted his teeth.
But it was Radek’s lips Dáša kissed that night near the shores of the lake, Radek’s hand she held as they wandered under the canopy of twilight. It was Radek she loved.
A few evenings later, he and Dáša were hunting for skipping stones where the mill stream emptied into the lake. Radek was concentrating, fishing around in the trickle for the perfect stone to outdo his last throw. So he heard nothing. All he felt was the wave of icy water. He jumped, slipped, and fell into the streambed just as the wheel ground into motion up the hill.
Dáša helped him up as her father appeared, cursing the village boys as he ran toward the sluice gate. “If I catch you, I’ll tie millstones around your ankles and make you drag them home to your fathers!”
Radek got to the gate first and lowered it, cutting off the water. No village boys.
From the crank handle dangled a ribbon, old and green with algae but red beneath. As he worked it free, he caught a whiff of something sweetish but faint. He sniffed the ribbon and jerked away as the tang of fish overpowered whatever else he’d smelled.
Dáša’s father arrived, panting.
Radek slipped the ribbon into his pocket. That night he prowled the woods behind the mill, looking for signs. Nothing. He felt ridiculous. But the next day, he hurried through his work at the farm and went straight to the mill.
Clouds blocked the late afternoon sun, and the lake’s rough surface absorbed the light and turned it gray. Radek slowed. It hadn’t rained all day, yet one small puddle after another followed the flagstone path toward the silent mill, each puddle the same distance apart. Then they veered off into the grass, heading toward the back of the mill.
He flung himself around the corner. The garden was empty, the back door closed. He tracked the puddles straight to Dáša’s open window, where water seemed to have been pooling for a long time. Chest tight, he took a shuddering breath and smelled it: pipe smoke. That‘s what he hadn’t recognized the day before at the sluice gate.
He looked past the lacy curtains to where Dáša sat, brushing her hair and humming.
She spun, startled. Then a smile lit her face. “What are you doing, skulking like a thief?”
“Did you see anyone out here?”
“Come outside. I need to show you something.”
Once he had her beside him, hands entwined, he pulled her to the flagstone path. The puddles were smaller than Radek’s feet, but he couldn’t deny their right-left pattern. He followed.
The footsteps led to the lake and disappeared with a muddy print, smudged and half submerged. “What does that look like?”
“Does a duck walk up the path and loiter at your window?”
“What are you talking about?”
He showed her the prints. “Someone was watching you.”
Dáša frowned and looked around.
“Someone or some thing. I smelled pipe smoke. And yesterday, when the sluice gate opened, I smelled it there too. And fish. And I found this.” He pulled the ribbon out of his pocket.
She stared, putting the pieces together. Then she burst out laughing. “You think we have a vodník scampering around here, stealing souls and keeping them in teapots?”
Well, from her lips, it didn’t sound entirely sensible.
She laughed again. “It’s just the village boys. Or do you think víly are real too, out dancing men to death in the forest? And witches? And do you still hope to see the golden pig on Christmas night?” She’d begun playfully, but as Radek stared, her teasing turned to disbelief. Then disappointment. “Tell me you’re just making fun.”
He forced a smile. “Of course I am. It was probably that buck-toothed Jakub and his friends.”
Dáša smiled and led him along the shore, where he tried to keep up his end of the conversation while keeping an eye on the water. Nothing strange…except the murkiness that had come with the beginning of summer. Nothing threatening, really. Dáša began tossing in pebbles. He flinched with every splash. But that was ridiculous, too. Dáša’s pebbles wouldn’t anger the vodník lurking under those waters because there was no vodník.
Such creatures existed only in tales. Web-footed, green-skinned mischief makers, fishing on the edges of ponds, dripping wherever they went, trailing ribbons from their silly hats. Darker tales of scaly, pipe-smoking goblins, sneaking through the woods, lurking in the water, drowning perfectly good swimmers, and dragging their souls down to lie trapped forever in watery lairs. Such stories had widened his eyes and tingled his spine when he was a boy, but he was practically a man now.
At dinner with her family, they laughed about the butcher’s very public scuffle with an uncooperative pig. Dáša’s father pulled down his fiddle and played a few tunes. Dáša leaned her head on Radek’s shoulder, and he forgot everything else.
When he bade them goodnight, Dáša gave him a very proper kiss on the cheek—she never did more in front of her parents—and grinned. “Don’t let the vodník steal your soul on the way home.”
Radek almost laughed. The afternoon felt a world away, his fears absurd.
“What are you talking about?” her father demanded.
“Nothing, Tati. Radek was just teasing me earlier about a water goblin creeping around here.”
“Young man, I want a word with you, outside. Alone.”
Radek swallowed hard and followed him out as Dáša lipped an apology.
They walked silently down the path while Radek prepared a dozen ways to defend his own foolishness.
But the question Dáša’s father asked was earnest, the anger gone. “Tell me, son. Were you just teasing about the vodník, or have you seen something?”
A trick, probably. But a lie has short legs. So Radek told the truth. All of it.
Dáša’s father turned toward the lake. His words, when they came, were low and steely. “Four nights ago, I was standing about here, and I thought I saw a boy…or a short man…down by the shore. When I called to him, something splashed, and he was gone. It was twilight. My eyes were playing tricks. Could have been a duck.”
“Did you find prints?”
“No. But in the morning, my box of tobacco was out of place.”
The box he kept in the kitchen. Feet from where Dáša’s slept.
“I swear some of it was gone. But once I caught those village boys smoking, so…”
It had to have been them.
“My father bought this land for a good price. No one wanted it. No one had built houses on the banks. We thought it strange. An old woman tried to warn us away. They like mills, she said. We thought she was talking about rats.”
An owl called in the distance.
“Will you lock the doors tonight?” Radek asked.
For a long time, her father gazed over the lake. Then he turned to Radek. “Yes.”
He met Dáša’s father at first light. Petr always said the lake was nothing but a big pond, and only people who had never traveled would call it a lake. But it took a long time to search. They examined everything. A few half prints, almost certainly ducks. Almost. A fish carcass, rank but still firm of flesh. Why had no bird ripped it to pieces? A stump with a stick leaning against it, close to shore. Radek imagined the vodník sitting there in its green coat, smoking its pipe, using the stick as a fishing pole, watching Dáša welcome customers and feed the chickens. Watching and watching until it decided to creep closer.
The stump with the stick was hardly proof. But the less evidence he saw, the more convinced he became. This was a clever water goblin, adept at hiding its presence.
When they circled all the way back to the mill, Dáša’s father grunted. “We’re probably making fools of ourselves.”
“Probably.” Dark water lapped at the shore, but no breeze stirred. Nothing felt right. “But will you lock the doors again?”
“Yes.” This time he didn’t hesitate.
He should have warned Dáša. She’d always held her own against the village bully. She wrestled giant bags of grain almost as well as her father. She wasn’t afraid of hard work or dark nights. But Radek wanted proof she wouldn’t laugh at. So that evening he crept back to the mill, carrying the axe he’d used to win so many wood-chopping competitions. He prowled the shore in the dying light.
At the stump with the stick lying against it…the stick was gone.
Dáša’s father could have moved it. Or Mr. Vaněk, who came to fish sometimes. Radek poked around. Near the banks sat a pile of fine white powder. Radek pinched it between his fingers. The devil had been stealing flour from the mill? Why would a vodník want flour?
Maybe he’d stolen other things too. Something caught Radek’s searching eye, half-submerged at the edge of the water under an overhanging bush that blocked his reach. Using his axe, he fished the muddy thing out of the water. A single boot. He wiped the mud away. In the near darkness, it was hard to see color. But the three buckles gleamed, their three different shapes unmistakable.
Petr often bragged of his boots, and how many leagues he’d traveled in them, and how he’d had one buckle replaced by a one-eyed seamstress in Červené Podlesí who wore a necklace of human teeth, or how he’d had another replaced after wild dogs bit into his boot and nearly dragged him into their den. The stories often changed. Radek never believed any of them. But he’d been forced to look at the boot on many a story-telling evening. And now he was looking at it again.
Petr had only one set of boots.
He’d never leave without them.
Radek hurried back to the mill, Petr’s boot dangling like a dead fish in his hand. Why wasn’t the door locked? He found Dáša’s mother rummaging through kitchen cupboards. “First, that ruffian Petr takes my good butter crock. Now this!”
Radek’s mouth went dry. “Something’s missing?’
“My flour crock.”
Everything narrowed to one thought. “Where’s Dáša?”
Radek dropped the boot and ran, axe tight in his hand. Over his shoulder, he yelled, “Don’t go near the lake!”
“Dáša!” Radek shouted, once outside. Only her father appeared. Radek kept running, circling the mill. He hit the muddy shore and slipped, skidding into the water. Something splashed. But where?
“Dáša!” her father called.
“Shh!” Radek hissed, half in the water, holding very still. “I heard something.”
Splashes tore the silence, along with Dáša’s angry voice.
Radek’s heart bashed at his chest as he plowed through water toward the writhing shadows. A head? Shoulder? Swinging arms? More splashes. A deep groan, like an old tree in a powerful storm. Then Dáša cried out in triumph and rose half out of the water.
She turned. Starlight caught just a trace of her features, her smile. Then—in an instant—she slipped straight down into the water as if she’d never been there.
He charged, screaming her name, then dove under, blind. He dropped the axe—unwilling to risk hurting her with it—and flailed his arms to try to find her. One hand skimmed the muddy bottom. Another scraped along rocks. Then he touched flesh. But not her soft skin, her smooth perfection. Something rough, like bark. He held tight.
The creature tried to pull away, but Radek was strong. The strongest boy—the strongest man—in the village. He held tight, reaching for Dáša with his other hand. The vodník had her. But he had the vodník. He could save her. He yanked the goblin toward him, searching for a face, a throat, anything tender. Something slammed into his chest. He gasped and took in water but held tight to the vodník‘s wildly kicking leg. Radek couldn’t feel the bottom anymore. The creature was pulling him deeper. He couldn’t breathe. And all his strength meant nothing down here. Except to hold on.
He reached again for an eye to gouge, a neck to clench, or skin that was smooth, skin that was hers, that he could somehow free. But the vodník swam too fast, dragging Radek behind him. He lost all sense of up and down. All he could think about was opening his mouth, breathing in deep. And holding on.
He ran his free hand down the vodník‘s leg and found the leathery foot pumping hard, nearly impossible to grip. Then he caught a toe. He forced it backward with all his strength. A crack echoed through the water. The vodník jerked and thrashed. Radek’s grip almost slipped. Let go of her and I’ll let go of you! But the vodník kept swimming. Deeper. Deeper.
Radek was going to burst. His lips would split open despite himself, desperate for air. Or his eyes would pop. Or his head. He kicked to get even with the vodník and made one last swipe through the water with this free hand. His fingertips touched something. Hair? With all this strength, he pulled. Something came away in his hand. Everything was pain and fuzziness. And he tried to hold on.
Air flooded Radek’s lungs. His searching arms found flesh. Human flesh. Dáša? Darkness closed in again, and then somehow he was on solid ground, coughing, throat raw, chest burning, hands cramped, head ringing. “Dáša?” He tried to push himself up.
A figure leaned over him, weeping. Dáša’s mother. Not weeping for him.
They never found her body. Or Petr’s. Sometimes Radek liked to imagine they’d run away together. The idea roused a bitter jealousy in him, and he welcomed it. The anger and insult were easier to bear than the truth. They were dead. Both of them. And the vodník wasn’t.
Dáša’s mother had found Radek floating in the lake and dragged him to shore. She hit him until he retched and breathed and fell unconscious again while Dáša’s father chased the last sight he would ever have of his daughter.
Dáša’s parents burned the mill and moved away.
Radek worked silently, methodically, through days and nights and days. He searched the lake sometimes, clear now and cruelly cheerful. When people began to return, sitting with their backs to the black ruins of the mill, Radek retreated to the farm. Somehow all those empty days and nights and days turned into years. Years slid into decades.
And now the lake had darkened again.
Old Man Radek wasn’t the strongest man in the village anymore. His back ached earlier every day. He’d had to hire help at the farm. But that night in the pub, when all the strong young men fell silent, pretending they didn’t know what he was talking about, Radek finished his beer, paid his bill, and went home to pack. At dawn, he sharpened his axe—which he would use this time. And he began to walk.
It had seemed such a short distance in the exuberance of youth. Now it was an endless road that led only to dark memories.
The paving stones where he’d first seen the watery footprints were nearly invisible, overgrown through years of neglect. Wild raspberry bushes choked the blackened remains of the walls where Dáša’s bedroom used to be. The mill stones sat unmoving. The sluice gate had decayed through.
He followed the shore to the stump where he had found the propped-up stick, Petr’s boot, and the pile of flour where the vodník must have emptied the flour crock. In Radek’s worst moments, he imagined that crock at the bottom of the lake, Dáša’s soul trapped inside. He’d swum the lake for weeks after her death, searching the muddy bottom for cold ceramic. He found nothing. His mother begged him to stop. He eventually did.
The stump had long since rotted away to nothing. On the muddy banks, prints overlapped. “You won’t get away this time,” he yelled. But nothing answered.
For three days, nothing answered. Nothing splashed in the water. Not fish. Not the skittish ducks whose subdued quacks came only from land.
No one came from the village to help. Because they didn’t believe the danger? Or because they did? For years he’d heard laughter behind his back from some people, sympathetic whispers from others. He wasn’t sure which was worse. If the villagers didn’t believe his story, why did they never come to the lake alone? Or at night? Even years later, why did no one rebuild the mill? Why did the young men in the pub that night avoid each other’s eyes?
It didn’t matter. He and the vodník would face each other alone. Only one would survive.
On the fourth day he woke in the weak light of dawn, hand cramped around the axe handle. His head felt cold. He didn’t have much hair anymore. He sat up, eyes bleary, looking for his hat. It was propped on the fire ring. He crept forward, limbs turning to ice.
The ribbon tied around the band was gone.
When he’d gasped awake on shore that night, it was clutched in his hand. He had to pry his own fingers open with his other hand. A piece of ribbon and a hunk of matted green hair: the thing he’d torn off the vodník in his last useless attempt to reach Dáša in the underwater darkness. The hair eventually disintegrated, but he’d worn the ribbon all these years.
Now it was gone.
He spun around, searching for movement, anything. The contents of his rucksack lay spread on the ground. The vodník had been here. In his camp.
Fear and rage roiled in the pit of his stomach. “Where are you?” he yelled.
For long moments Radek saw nothing but the unanswering gray sky, the gray lake, and the dark woods crowding closer to the mill. Then something moved.
The thing that faced him was shorter than Radek by a foot. Water dripped from its long green coat, from mossy hair that fell in ragged clumps around its green-skinned face. Amber eyes glowed in the gloom as they stared at Radek, malice written across them in a language they both spoke. The vodník slowly lifted one grotesque foot, long scaly toes connected by gray-green webbing. One toe bent at a strange angle.
Radek remembered that gruesome snap as he broke the vodník‘s toe, trying to get it to release Dáša.
Now the vodník set down its mangled foot and pointed one webbed finger at Radek. They stood there for long moments. The vodník brought its other hand from behind its back, long fingers curled around a jar. Stolen from Radek’s pack.
Every muscle tightened, readying. “You want my soul?” The axe handle felt smooth and perfect in his hand.
One corner of the goblin’s mouth turned up in a very human sneer. Then it turned and ran toward the lake.
Radek followed, legs flying, breath heaving, but the vodník was faster. The goblin dove into the water and Radek wrestled his own desire to follow. That’s where the vodník wanted him.
“Afraid to face me on land?” Radek yelled.
Something splashed by the half-submerged rocks where he and Dáša had sometimes hunted crayfish. The vile green face rose from the water. The vodník let out a high-pitched call. Mockery? Triumph? Then it disappeared into the water.
Radek crept to camp and fashioned a dummy from his jacket and hat, propping it by the fire. Then he hid. And watched.
In the midmorning silence, where even birds refused to sing, another splash drew Radek’s eyes toward the submerged rocks. The vodník’s unblinking eyes appeared, staring at Radek’s camp so still that Radek might not have noticed the head among the scattered reeds. For a quarter of an hour, the vodník watched Radek’s unmoving dummy. Then it sank beneath the surface, ignoring the bait.
Soon a bird began to sing. Ducks ventured to the shore, still timid but emboldened by something. What did they know that Radek didn’t?
The vodník didn’t reappear. It occurred to Radek that he’d never seen evidence of the goblin during midday. Even monsters had to sleep, right?
Radek waded quietly into the lake, toward the rocks where he’d last seen the vodník. The higher knobby shelf dropped off a few feet to another stretch of rock that, in turn, tumbled away to meet the muddy lake floor. He couldn’t see well into the murky water, but his memory was clear—Dáša smiling as she stood on that middle shelf, crayfish pinched gently between her fingers—and somehow, his feet knew the rocks.
He’d found nothing here, all those days swimming the lake, looking for Dáša’s body to bury. Maybe he hadn’t looked hard enough. He climbed down, standing up to his chest in water. He dipped his head under and opened his eyes. The water burned, but everything glowed in the sun. What did a vodník lair look like?
He studied the formation’s curves, searching for something he’d missed. One large stone, smoother than everything else, rested awkwardly against the pitted surface of the rock face. Radek heaved it away, revealing a dark hollow, too small for the vodník to sleep in. But as his eyes adjusted, he spotted something shiny behind the lip of the tiny cave. He grabbed it and stood, squinting against the bright sunlight. A jar.
Fear skittered around him. He filled his lungs and returned to the dark recess. His hands found something smooth, wedged between rocks. He pulled, and it came free before he expected, slamming into the sharp rock mouth. It cracked. Something shimmered before him like a school of minnows catching the light as they darted back and forth. The shimmer floated for long moments in front of him and then rose to the surface and disappeared. A trick of the light. But in his hand, Radek held the remains of an ancient pot, chipped and streaked with green.
He reached into the recess and scrabbled for more. Something round. He pulled it out. A teapot, barely recognizable, lid tied with string. He broke the string and tore off the lid. A cloud of iridescent bubbles rose to the surface.
With hope so strong it felt like dread, he searched for a flour crock. But the alcove was empty. He rose for air and then swam deeper. Another out-of-place stone. Another hidden recess. The sun felt far away. He stuck his hand in blind. Another jar. The lid wouldn’t open, so he broke it. A flicker of heat and light shot upward.
He dropped the axe and searched with both hands. Something square. He couldn’t make out the lid’s color, but he knew it would be blue. Petr, the nemesis of his youth, had become a bitter sort of friend in death. He hesitated a moment, then lifted the lid. Water flashed like a carp with golden scales, darting upward.
Where was Dáša? His lungs were about to burst, his sight growing fuzzy. He followed Petr’s soul to the surface, sucked in air, and dove back in head first, forgetting to be quiet. There, in the very back of the lower recess, his hands found it: a flour crock. He wept, tears mixing with the water. He put his lips to the mud-covered surface. Then he opened the lid. Gold and silver shimmered and danced before him—a hundred shooting stars. He reached out. The stars kept bursting. The colors surrounded his hand, and his skin tingled with heat.
He could almost hear her voice, her beautiful laughter.
The shimmers turned frantic and began to move.
Don’t go, he wanted to say. But he would be no prison for her.
Her light moved not toward the surface but toward the center of the lake. When Radek turned to follow, something was emerging from the murky depths.
The vodník‘s face appeared first. Then its arms reached forward, scaly fingers splayed. Its eyes burned with malevolence. Radek grabbed the axe he’d dropped and steadied himself, waiting, waiting. When the vodník was close enough, he swung. But all Radek’s strength only twisted his own body as the axe arced lazily toward his target, the weapon’s power sucked up by the water.
The goblin grinned and swam easily out of the way.
Radek kicked upwards. He’d make his stand on the upper shelf of rock, chest-deep in water, where the axe might have a chance of working. But a hand clamped onto his ankle and jerked him down, away from the rocks. Radek clawed with one hand and caught a lip of rock that sliced his fingers as it slipped out of his grasp. Now only water surrounded him.
Dáša’s bright stars shot past. The pull on Radek slackened enough that he could maneuver to see his foe. Gold and silver shimmered around the vodník’s face. The monster squirmed, swatted with its free hand, and threw its head back and forth, but its grip stayed firm on Radek’s ankle.
Radek took a moment to think, to gauge the exact distance and angle he would need. He took hold of the axe right below the newly sharpened axe head, tested its weight, and readied himself.
The moment the shimmers withdrew, Radek bent his knees, yanking his legs toward his chest, pulling the vodník closer. Its fingers dug into Radek’s throat, trying to make him give up what air he had left. Radek grabbed the goblin’s mossy hair—whole hanks of it this time, so it couldn’t pull free—and wrestled the head into position.
The vodník‘s lips pulled back, revealing vicious teeth.
Radek raised the axe head like a knife and slashed with all his strength across the creature’s neck. Once. Twice.
The fingers on Radek’s throat released their hold.
He kicked for the surface, sucked in air, then dove back down. The vodník was drifting, lifeless, into the murk. And stars still shot gold and silver.
Radek let the axe fall. He put his arms out one last time, and Dáša’s golden bursts of light floated into them. His skin blazed with every kiss, every caress, every word of love she’d given him. I’m sorry, he wanted to say. But her light was already beginning to rise toward the surface, her soul finding freedom at last.
Radek floated, weightless, and watched her go.