Slavonic Fairy Tales/The Language of Animals

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(from the servian.)

A certain man had a shepherd who had served him faithfully and honestly for many years. One day, as the shepherd was tending his sheep, he heard a hissing noise in the forest, and wondered what it could be. He went, therefore, into the wood in the direction of the sound, to learn what it was. There he saw that the dry grass and leaves had caught fire, and in the middle of a burning circle a snake was hissing. The shepherd stopped to see what the snake would do, for the fire was burning all around it, and the flames approached it nearer and nearer every moment. Then the snake cried from amid the fire,—

"Oh, shepherd! for heaven's sake save me from this fire!"

The shepherd stretched out his crook over the flames to the snake, and the snake passed along it on to his hand, and from his hand it crawled to his neck, where it twisted itself round.

When the shepherd perceived this, he was greatly alarmed, and said to the snake,—

"What have I done in an evil hour! Have I saved you to my own destruction!"

The snake answered him, "Fear not, but carry me to my father's house. My father is the king of the snakes."

The shepherd, however, began to beg the snake to excuse him, saying that he could not leave the sheep; but the snake answered,—

"Be not troubled about the sheep; no harm shall happen to them; only go as fast as you can,"

The shepherd then walked through the forest with the snake until he came to a gate which was entirely made of snakes knotted together. There the snake on the shepherd's neck gave a whistle, and all the other snakes untwisted themselves. Then the snake said to the shepherd—

"When we come to my father's palace he will give you whatever you ask for: silver, gold, and precious stones. Do you, however, take nothing of these, but beg to know the language of the brutes and other creatures. He will refuse you this for a long time, but at last he will grant your request."

Meanwhile they came to the palace, to the father, who, shedding many tears, cried,— "For heaven's sake! my dearest daughter, where have you been?"

And she told him in due order how she had been surrounded by the forest-fire, and how the shepherd had rescued her. Then the king of the snakes turned to the shepherd and said to him,—

"What would you have me give you for the deliverance of my daughter?"

The shepherd answered, "Only let me understand the language of animals; I want nothing else."

Then the king said, "That is not good for you; for if I were to bestow upon you the gift of the knowledge of the tongue of animals, and you were to tell any one of it, you would instantly die. Ask, therefore, for something else; whatever you desire to possess, I will give to you."

To which the shepherd replied,—

"If you wish to give me anything, then grant me the knowledge of the language of brute creatures; but if you do not care to give me that—farewell, and God protect you! I want nothing else." And the shepherd turned to leave the place.

Then the king called him back, saying,—

"Stay! come here to me, since you will have it at all hazards. Open your mouth."

The shepherd opened his mouth, and the king of the snakes breathed into it, and said,—

"Do you now breathe into my mouth."

The shepherd breathed into his mouth, and the snake-king breathed again into that of the shepherd. After they had breathed each three times into the other's mouth, the king said,—

"Now you understand the language of animals, and of all created things. Go in peace, and God be with you! but for the life of you, tell no one of this; if you do, you will die on the instant!"

The shepherd returned home through the forest. As he walked he heard and understood all that the birds said, and the grass and all the other things that are upon the earth. When he came to his sheep and found them all together and quite safe, he laid himself down to rest. Scarcely had he lain down when there flew two ravens towards him, who took their perch upon a tree, and began to talk together in their own language.

"What if that shepherd only knew that underneath the place where the black lamb lies there is a cellar full of silver and gold!"

When the, shepherd heard this, he went to his master, and told him of it. The master took a cart with him, and they dug down to a door leading to the cave, and removed the treasure to his house. But the master was an honest man, and gave all the treasure to the shepherd, saying,—

"My son, all this treasure is yours, for heaven has given it to you. Buy yourself a house with it, marry, and live happily in it."

The shepherd took the treasure, built himself a house, and, having married, lived a happy life. Soon he became known as the richest man, not only in his own village, but so rich that there was not his equal in the whole neighbourhood. He had his own shepherd, cowkeeper, hostler, and swineherd; plenty of goods and chattels, and great riches.

One day, just before Christmas, he said to his wife, "Get some wine, and some brandy, and all things necessary; to-morrow we will go to the farmyard and take the good things to the shepherds, that they may also enjoy themselves."

The wife followed his directions and prepared all that he had told her. When they arrived on the following day at the farm-house, the master said to the shepherds in the evening,—

"Come here, all of you; eat, drink, and be merry. I will watch over the flocks for you to night." And he went, in very deed, and remained with the flocks.

About midnight the wolves began to howl and the dogs to bark, and the wolves said in their language,—

"May we come in and do what mischief we like? Then you, too, shall have your share."

And the dogs answered in their language, "Come in; and we will eat our fill with you."

But among the dogs there was an old one, who had but two teeth in his head, and he said to the wolves,—

"That will not do. So long as I have my two teeth in my head you shall do no harm to my master nor his."

The master heard it all, and understood what was said. On the following morning he ordered all the dogs to be killed, save only the old one. The hinds said, "Heaven forbid, sir; that would be a great pity!" But the master answered, "Do what I have told you."

Then he prepared to return home with his wife, and they both mounted their horses. And as they rode on, the husband got a little ahead, while the wife fell behind. At last the husband's horse neighed, and called to the mare,—

"Come on! make haste! Why do you lag behind?"

And the mare answered him, "Ah, yes, it is all very easy for you: you have only one to carry, the master; while I have to carry three, the mistress, her baby, and my own foal."

The husband turned round and laughed, and his wife seeing this, urged the mare forward, overtook her husband, and asked him what he had been laughing at.

"Nothing; I do not know; just something that came into my mind," answered the husband.

But the wife was not satisfied with this answer, and she pressed him again and again to tell her why he had laughed.

But he excused himself, and said,—

"Let me alone, wife! What is the matter with you? I do not know myself why I laughed."

But the more he denied her the more she insisted upon his telling her what he had been laughing at. At last the husband said to her,—

"Know then, that if I tell you the reason, I shall instantly die."

The woman, however, did not care for that, but urged him to tell her notwithstanding.

Meanwhile they had reached home. The husband ordered a coffin to be made immediately, and when it was ready he had it placed before the house, and said to his wife,—

"See now, I now lay me down in this coffin, and then tell you why I laughed; but as soon as I have told you I shall die."

The husband lay down in the coffin, and looked around him for the last time. And there came the old dog from the farmyard, and sat down at his head and whined. The husband seeing this, said to his wife,—

"Bring a piece of bread and give it to this dog."

The wife brought out a piece of bread, and threw it down to the dog; but the dog would not even look at it. Then the house-cock ran up, and began to pick at the bread; and the dog said to it,—

"You miserable greedy thing, you! You can eat, and yet you see that the master is going to die!"

The cock answered the dog, "And let him die since he is such a fool! I have a hundred wives, and I call them all together whenever I find a grain of corn, and as soon as they have come round me, I swallow it myself. And if any one of them got angry, I should be at her directly with my beak. The master has only one wife, and he cannot even manage her."

When the husband heard this he quickly sprang out of the coffin, took up a stick, and called his wife into the room.

"Come, wife," he said, "I will tell you what you so much want to hear."

Then as he beat her with the stick he cried, "This is it, wife! This is it!"

In this way he quieted his wife, and she never asked him again what he had been laughing at.

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