Russian Folk-Tales/The Singing-Tree and the Speaking-Bird

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Once upon a time there was a very inquisitive King who spent all his time eavesdropping at the window. There was also a merchant, who had three daughters, and one day they were talking to their father, and one said: "If only the King's bread-bearer would marry me!" The second one said: "If only the King's valet would cast his eyes upon me! "But the third said: "I want the King himself: I would bear him two sons and one daughter."

Now the King was listening to all this conversation; and after a few days he did exactly as they had wished: the eldest married the King's bread-bearer, the middle one the King's valet, but the youngest married the King himself.

The King married very happily, and after some time his Queen was about to bear him a child. He was sending for the midwife of the town, but the elder sisters asked him why he should; they would act as midwives. As soon as the Queen had born him a son, the midwives took him away and told the King his wife had born a pup; and they put the new-born babe into a box and threw it into a big pond in the King's garden.

At this the King was very angry, and wanted to have his wife blown to bits at the cannon's mouth; but—it so happened—some other princes were on a visit, and persuaded him to forgive a first offence. So the King pardoned her for the nonce, and gave her a second chance.

One year went by, and the Queen bore him another son, and the sisters again took it away, and told him she had born a kitten. The King was angry at first, this time he was sore enraged, and was agog to punish his wife, but once more he was won over.

So he gave her a third chance. This time the Queen bore a very beautiful daughter, and the sisters took it and told the King she had born an unheard-of monster.

Oh! there were no bounds to his fury now; he ordered the hangman in and bade him hang his wife on the spot; but once more some visiting princes overruled him and said: "Would it not be better to put an oratory up near the church and put her into it, and let every one who goes to Mass spit into her eyes?" So he did; but, so far from being spat upon by every passer-by, every one brought her fine loaves and pasties.

But, when her three children had been thrown into the pond in the King's garden, they were not drowned, for the King's gardener took them home and brought them up. They were fine children; you could see them growing up, not by years, but months, not by days, but by hours. The King's sons shot up, youths no men could imagine, guess, or draw, or paint; and the Tsarévna was such a beauty! Almost terribly beautiful! One day, when they were older, they asked the gardener to let them build themselves a little home behind the town. The gardener consented, and they erected a big, splendid house, and led a merry life in it. The brothers used to go hunting hares, and one day they went off and left their sister alone at home.

A visitor knocked at the door: the sister opened the door and saw an old hag, who said: "You have a pretty little place here; three things are lacking."

"What are they? I always thought we had everything!"

The hag replied: "You still need the Talking-Bird, the Singing-Tree, and the Water of Life."

And then the sister was left all alone once more; when her brothers came home, she said: "Brothers, we lack nothing save three things."

"What are they?"

"We haven't a Talking-Bird, a Singing-Tree, and the Water of Life!"

The elder brother said: "Sister, give me your blessing, and I'll go and discover you these marvels. If I die, or am killed, you will know by this knife dripping blood. There it is, stuck into the wall."

So he went, and wandered away, far, far away into the forest. At last he came to a gigantic oak-tree; and on the tree there was an old man sitting, whom he asked how he was to procure the "Talking-Bird, a Singing-Tree, and the Water of Life."

The old man replied: "Possible it is, but not easy; many go, but few return."

But the young man persisted and left the old man. The old man gave him a rolling-pin, and told him to let it roll on in front of him, and follow wherever it went. The pin rolled on, and after it walked the Prince: it rolled up to a steep hill, and was lost. Then the Prince went up the hill, went half-way up; and, as he went along, he heard a voice: "Hold him, seize him, grip him!" He looked round and was turned into stone.

That very same hour blood began to drip from the knife in the cottage, and the sister told the younger brother that the elder was dead.

So he answered: "Now I will go, sister mine, and capture the Talking-Bird, the Singing-Tree, and the Water of Life!"

So she blessed him, and he went on and on for very many weary miles, and met the old man on the tree, who gave him another rolling-pin: and the pin rolled up to the mountain; and both were lost, pin and Prince!

The sister waited for many years, but he never came back, and she thought he, too, must have died. So she set out to find the Talking-Bird, Singing-Tree, and Water of Life. She arrived at last at that same oak-tree, saw the old man sitting on it, greeted him, and shaved his head and brows, as she brought scissors and a mirror with her.

"Look," she said, "what a change it makes in you!"

He looked into the mirror: "Yes," he said; "I am quite a fine man now. I've sat here thirty years: never a soul cut my hair, you guessed my need."

Then she asked him: "Grandfather, how can I get the Talking-Bird, the Singing-Tree, and the Water of Life?"

He answered: "How can you get them? Cleverer folk than you have been after them, and they have all been lost."

But she persisted: "Please tell me!"

So he gave her another rolling-pin, and told her to follow it: she would hear cries of "Catch her: scotch her," but she must not look round, for fear of being turned into stone. "At the top you will see a well and the Talking-Bird. As you come back, you will see lofty stones standing upright; sprinkle them all with the Water of Life."

So on she went: the pin rolled on, far or near, long or short, it reached a steep mountain; and the girl climbed up and heard cries: "Where are you going? We shall kill you! We shall eat you up!"

But still she went on and on, reached the summit, and there she found a well and the Talking-Bird. She took it and asked it: "Tell me how to get the Singing-Tree and the Water of Life."

The Bird replied: "Go straight by this path."

She did, and came upon the Singing-Tree, and in it all sorts of birds were singing. She broke off a sprig, pulled up a water-lily, and put some of the Water of Life into the cup of the flower, and turned back homewards.

As she clomb downhill, she saw boulders standing upright, and sprinkled them with the Water of Life; and her brothers jumped up alive and said: "Oh, what a long sleep we have had!"

"Yes, my brothers, but for me you would have slept on for ever. And look here; I have got you the Talking-Bird, the Singing-Tree, and the Water of Life!"

The brothers were overjoyed, went home and planted the Singing-Tree in the garden; it overspread the whole garden, and all kinds of birds began singing. One day they were out hunting and the King met them by chance. He fell in love with the gay huntsmen, and invited them home. They said they would ask their sister, and come at once if she consented.

So they went back home. The sister met them and greeted them, and the brothers said: "Please, sister, may we go and dine with the King? He has asked us in."

She said "Yes," and they went. At the banquet, the King gave them the place of honour, and they begged he would honour them with a visit. Some days later the King went. They gave him a rich spread, and showed him the Singing-Tree and the Talking-Bird.

He was amazed and said: "I am the King, and have nothing as good!"

Then the King looked at them and said: "Who is your father?"

They said: "We do not know." But the Talking-Bird broke in and said: "They are your children."

Then the King looked at the maiden and wanted to marry her. Again the Talking-Bird said: "You may not; she is your daughter."

The King then saw how matters stood; was overjoyed; took them to live with him for ever. As to the two evil sisters, he had them shot; but his wife he released from the chapel, and took her to himself again, and they lived merrily on for many years of happiness.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.