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THE BIRCH-CHILD.
(An old soldier-story of the Fassa-mountains.)

The big farmstead, Sot-les-Elbes, above Delba in the Fassa-valley, once belonged to an old widower who was as avaricious as he was rich. He had a son, named Loogut, and two daughters. It was impressed upon these children, from their earliest days, that all their efforts should be directed towards increasing their father's store. He told his daughters never to marry, but to remain with their brother, and help him to till the farm, so that he need not employ servants. Avarice and covetousness completely dominated this old man's mind, and all his thoughts.

One day in autumn, when the first snow-storm was howling down from the mountains, it happened that a poor man came begging for supper. This poor man was fed every day at different houses in turn. On this occasion he came a day before his time to Sot-les-Elbes; the owner, therefore, became very angry and turned him out of doors. The beggar, a little, weak, old man staggered to the hedge, and fell down there. He felt ill and was unable to rise again. Loogut, seeing this, came hastening along and assisted the poor old man. He brought him into the stable and made him a bed of straw. When the father saw this he scolded him:

"If you take notice of such rabble, you will not succeed very well in life."

The girls wanted to cook something for the beggar, but the father would not allow it.

"Give him the leavings," he said, "and even they are too good for him."

The beggar became highly feverish. Loogut got up during the night to look after him, and to bring him a drink, for he knew him for years and liked him. The beggar used to be a shepherd, and Loogut, being then quite a little boy, had often accompanied him to the high mountain pastures "su Crèpa Nèjgres". Although Loogut understood nothing about sickness, still, on this night he fully appreciated that this old man's life was nearly over. If he had been a Christian he would have sent for a priest, but in those days, many people in the Fassa-valley Loogut amongst them - were still pagans. The old man began to talk deliriously, and with the dawn, he died. Loogut sat there, not knowing what to do. He had never before seen anyone seriously ill, or dead, and he was therefore deeply affected by the sight of him. He went into the house to tell his father about the old man's death, and he asked him if all men had to end in such a miserable way.

"Certainly," his father answered, "death makes no distinction, it takes all men, rich and poor, high and low, and it will take you as well as me. One should, therefore, employ one's time in working and amassing riches while one is still young and healthy."

Loogut became mortally afraid on hearing these words. He was horrified by the prospect of having to end his life in the manner that he had witnessed, and he stood there silently, thinking about it.

"Don't rack your brains over that," his father said, "there is no use; you had better look after your work."

At that moment there was a knocking at the gate. Loogut went out and opened it, and three Arimans came in (the professional soldiers of the Fossa district were called Arimans). They were coming down from Contrin, and they said that they had a fight up there near Tscharelles, in the snowstorm. One of them had his head bandaged. They remained some hours in the house, where they were entertained, and they related many of their war experiences. When they heard that the old shepherd was dead, they wished to see the dead body. Loogut conducted them to the stable, and when the Arimans looked at the dead man, they said that they pitied him because of his death in the straw. Loogut remarked that he had only made a bed of straw for the old man so that he would not have to lie on the hard ground.

"We don't mean that," replied the Arimans, "but we make a distinction between those who die in battle, and those who die in straw. It is a miserable thing to die in straw, and we f eel pity f or anyone who must die like that."

Loogut grew astonished at hearing these words, then he ventured to ask if a soldier's death was not also a wretched one, and if they did not fear it as other men do.

The Arimans laughed and one of them said:

"We Arimans dont think of death, and we don't worry about it. We do not die miserably, for we die by arms. Then the battle-field is cleared, and the dead are buried, our own and the enemy's, for they all died in honour, and are worthy of one another, man for man. A grave is made under high trees, then the dead are carried along upon spears, drum-beats are heard, and a flag is flying in front. The flag is laid upon the grave-thus we soldiers die, and when "the promised time" comes we shall all rise again from the dead."

The young man was very pleased by all this. His fear of death had come so suddenly, and was now vanishing in the same way. Then he told them that he wished to join the Arimans troop.

"Why not?", answered the Arimans, "report yourself to the "Sarastante" (leader) and he will take you with pleasure."

Next day Loogut spoke to his father about the matter, and the latter became awfully angry.

"You are mad," he cried, "only slaves and idlers become soldiers, never a settled farmer. And, then, what will happen to your fiancée, if you keep such foolish ideas in your head?"

The son had not yet thought about that. The fiancée that was chosen by his father had always remained a stranger to him. He was silent for a moment, and then he said he would break off the engagement. The old man did not like these words, and he grew still more angry and began to threaten.

"If you really do that, I will disinherit and curse you."

"I am quite pleased to let my heritage go to my sisters," replied Loogut, "but you must not curse me, father, for I am doing nothing wicked if I join the soldiers."

The old man went away to fetch the fiancée's mother, so that she might help him to dissuade his son from his resolution. Loogut told her that he would not stay on the paternal farm and marry, because he did not want to die the straw-death. All the efforts of his father and his fiancée's mother were in vain. Finally the woman became enraged, prophesying that he would never die in battle, and when he swore that he only wanted to die by arms, the woman cried:

"Do what you like, my curse is upon you; not in battle, but by means of a woman will you die. 'Your dead body will be despised, no drum will beat, and no flag will fly for you."

After saying this she went home, and told her daughter what had happened. The girl was very sorry for a long time. Three years later an older man came and wooed her. She could not decide, but, when her mother said-take him, then at least you will be married-she yielded. But being unable to forget, she died when giving birth to her first child, and her husband went up with the child to Penia, the highest village in the Fassa-valley.

In the meantime Loogut had joined the Arimans and gone to the war which was being waged at that time at Ombretta and Tian de Lòbyes. Some years afterwards a band of hostile Trusans succeeded in coming over the Padeon-mountains to Penia, unseen, and they suddenly attacked the village. The Trusans stole the cattle, and made many people prisoners, among them the man we have already alluded to. He just had sufficient time to put his child into a "Refa" (loose knap-sack) and to take it with him. The Trusans dragged their prisoners over Fedaja in the district of the Cayutes. At night they arrived at the Malga Ciapela. Here, what are called the Serrài, many wild rocks, unfold themselves similarly to those in the Ega-valley on the Rivo di Cardano. From out of these Serrài, was heard a noise, which could not be the roaring of water, and no one knew what it could be. A wounded Trusan came back from there, and told them that a body of Arimans were standing in the Serrài, and were fighting fiercely. It was also feared that more Arimans might come from Ombretta and surround the Trusans. They would therefore have to bring their prisoners quickly into the Serrài, and fill the outlet with a rearguard. As soon as the man with the child heard this he thought it might easily happen that the narrow Serrài would become terribly crowded, and he and his child be pushed down into the brook. But at that time a birch-forest was standing near the Malga Ciapela, and in passing by the man hung his loose knap-sack upon a birch-tree, thinking that the Arimans would come soon, find the child and save it. They really came, and a fierce night-battle took place at the entrance to the Serrài. The Trusans finally gained the outlet to Sottoguada, but many were pushed into the water and were drowned, and so was the poor prisoner who had left the child on the tree.

On the next morning the Arimans found the child and took it down from the tree. Loogut came up and declared that he would bring the child back to Fossa and give it to its parents. He did bring the child to Fassa, but as nobody knew whose child it was, Loogut decided to keep it himself. He always carried it on his back, and when he went into battle he hid it under a thick leather coat. The child was a girl, and talked very funnily, and as she was found hanging upon a birch-tree, she was called "Bedoyélla" (little birch child) a name which soon was shortened to 0yélla.

The Arimans often had a good laugh at the little one's sentences. Once she declared that when she grew up she would marry Loogut. His comrades made much of this, all of them being unmarried, and after that they always said Loogut was married. They advised him to ask a Wiwèna (a forest-woman) what kind of fate the child would bring him. Loogut, indeed, met a Wiwèna one evening: at the foot of the Wernèl-walls, in the locality called "sot i grèn Peròns", and he asked her.

The Wiwèna replied:


vint éjn tóus
vint éjn sudà
vint éjn marridà
e poo I'murirà.

(twenty years a youth
twenty years a soldier
twenty years a husband
and then he will die.)


Loogut did not know what meaning he was to take from this prediction. He did not bother about it and he continued to take the child with him on his compaigns, until she was so grown up that he could not carry her any longer. Then he brought Oyélla to the alpine pasture of Camerlòy, which lies towards the west, on the big mountain Wayolòn. There he handed her over to a Wiwèna, saying that she was his fiancée and that he himself was obliged to go to the war.

After he had soldiered for twenty years, the troop of Arimans was disbanded. The last of the Arimans decided to leave the country with their leader Tarlúy, but Loogut could not bring himself to leave Fassa on account of Oyélla, and while his comrades met their deaths upon the black mountains of Montschóyn, in a last bloody conflict, Loogut remained and went to Camerlòy. There he found that Oyélla had grown up, and that she had been well reared and educated by the Wiwènas. The two women entertained him with "Vin de mesùa" (Wine of barberries) as it was said to be good for every ache. When Loogut tasted this wine it reminded him of his father's farm-stea d, the hedge of which was profusely covered by such berries, and all at once he thought how beautiful it would be if he could go and live there with Oyélla. For twenty years he had carefully avoided the locality of Delba, and he had never heard any news about his father and sisters. Now he felt a great desire to learn something about them, so he went on the mountain Buffáure, and over to the . Creppes where, as he well knew, people from Delba were often working. There he found a woman hay-worker, who Aid not recognize him, and he asked her about the people in Sot-les-Elbes. He soon learned that his father and one of his sisters were dead, and that the second sister had emigrated and was not heard of again. He asked who now possessed the farm, and he was told that it was abandoned and deserted; nobody lived in it, and it was called "the dead farm-stead".

Loogut could not believe it, but on the next day he was convinced. The neighbours of Sot-les-Elbes did not even allow their cattle to graze on the meadows there, for poisonous herbs were said to grow on that soil. The buildings were partly destroyed already by wind and weather, and nobody dared to use them for they were said to be haunted, and a horrible noise could be heard there at night. Loogut got such a terribly gloomy impression that he went away, and returned no more to Sot-les-Elbes.

Soon afterwards he succeeded in finding a cave on the Costa Soreghina, the sunny mountain slope over Gries, and there he settled, making it quite comfortable. After a while he brought Oyélla down from Carnerlòy, and took her to his new home. All around the slopes many barberries were growing. Loogut and Oyélla made wine and they kept it in little barrels. Now people often came, wanting to be cured, and accordingly they took this wine, so the cave in which Loogut and Oyélla lived soon became generally known as "Cèvena dal vin" (wine-cellar).

Some years passed. Then on one gloomy autumn day it happened that a strange woman came to Loogut while Oyélla was gathering berries outside. Loogut did not like the stranger, for she looked around very curiously, and while doing so, distorted her mouth with a sneer. All at once she asked Loogut whether he was the father, or the husband,of the young woman he lived with, and as Loogut was replying in an evasive manner the strange woman said that she had heard on the mountain Wayolòn that he had been engaged to the young girl, and that he was now supposed to have married her.

She added, maliciously, "and such a very young woman; you, a man who already has gray hairs."

From that day Loogut could find no peace. Incessantly he was considering if he ought not to leave Oyélla, but it did not seem possible to him to live without her.

The girl had no idea of all this. Assiduously she searched about the slope and, again and again, brought home an apron full of barberries. In this way she often met a hunter who was living up at Kjarwèna, and they became acquainted. As soon as Loogut saw this he at once felt certain that his life was now ruined, yet he did not try to run from the fate which he now felt was coming. While Oyélla worked beside him he watched her for hours, becoming more and more tormented by the conviction that soon he would lose her.

In the following spring, Oyélla married. It was just twenty years since Loogut had found her in the birch-forest. When she went up to Kjarwèna with her young husband, Loogut accompanied them both to the summit, then he returned to his lonely home. There he sat all alone, terribly tormented by the thought that his life had no more meaning or purpose. Then an old man came to buy wine and Loogut gave him a little barrel refusing to take any payment.

On the following days other people came also, and he gave them all his stores. Having nothing left he closed the entrance to the cave with a stone wall, and he went away. It was a wonderful day, and there, over the edge of the valley, stood the Wernèl, majestic in the sunshine. Over there, upon the mountains of Contrin and Fedaja, the Arimans often fought their battles. Remembrances passed through Loogut's mind. He thought of how the old shepherd had died before his eyes, how the Arimans had warned him in front of that straw-death, how he had left home and fiancée to take up the life of a restless warrior and suddenly the desire awoke: back to the soldiers !

Among those to whom Loogut had presented a little barrel of wine, was an invalid Ariman who lived over on the Sass de Rotscha. Loogut went to him and asked him where the last Arimans were, as he wanted to join them again. The invalid answered that there were no more Arimans except Lidsanèl, who, for a vow, was wandering through the forest without arms. Loogut was made miserable by this information. His life now, he said, was empty, and he wished to die. He also entreated the invalid to kill him with his sword so that he could die by arms, and not have to die the straw-death. The invalid tried to console him, and advised him to become a hunter, but Loogut replied that he was already dead in his soul, and that he could not endure external life any longer.

Then he went to the smith who had his workshop on the Ruff d'Antermónt, and got him to make a bow of steel. This he fastened to a tree in the Petschedàzforest, and shot himself through with a big and heavy arrow. - But a suicide was a thing unheard of in Fassa; the people, therefore, were afraid to look at the dead Loogut, and no one would bury his dead body. For three days it lay there, then Lidsanèl heard about it. He hastened along, and with the help of the invalid, buried Loogut under the tree at which he had killed himself.

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From this occurrence a strange custom originated among the old inhabitants of the Fassa-valley. When a man was going to become a soldier ("zir sot la nàya", as it was called) there was painted, upon the wall of his paternal home, the image of a warrior who was carrying a little child on his back. This image was to preserve the soldier from every evil, like an exorcism of fate. At that time many people in the Fassa-valley still had pagan ideas, but the last real pagans are said to have been those professional soldiers, called Arimans, to whom Loogut also belonged.

Then, when Christianity became general, Loogut's image was superseded by that of Saint Christopher.