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The Blue Snake

2006-07-13 23:31

  There were two boys lived in our village, quite close together - folks called them Lanko the Rabbit and Leiko the Hat.

  Who'd given them those nicknames and why, I can't say.

  They were good friends, those two. And they matched each other well. One was as clever as the other, one as strong as the other and they were the same height and the same age. There wasn't much difference in the way they lived either. Lanko's father worked in the ore mine, and Leiko's was at the gold-field washing sand; and both the mothers, of course, were busy with work about the house and yard. So neither could brag to the other.

  There was only one thing different about them. Lanko didn't like his nickname, it was as though folks were jeering at him for a coward, while Leiko didn't mind his at all, he even liked it, it seemed sort of friendly. He'd often beg his mother: “Make me a new hat. They all call me Leiko the Hat, and I've naught but Father's fur cap and even that's an old one.”

  That didn't stop the boys being good friends, though. Leiko was the first to hit any boy he heard calling Lanko a rabbit.

  “I'll give ye rabbit! Who's he ever been scared of?”

  Well, so that's how they lived, always together. They'd quarrel, of course, but it never lasted long. Before you'd time to turn round they were together again.

  There was another thing where they were the same - they were both the youngest in the family. And those always have more time to play. There's no little 'uns to look after. From winter's end to winter's beginning they only come home to eat and sleep. Plenty for lads to do - play knucklebones or skittles or ball, or go fishing and swimming, gather berries or mushrooms, climb all the hills, hop round every tree-stamp on one foot. Early morning they'd be off, and try to find them after that! But nobody sought them over much. They'd come home at eve and their mothers would scold a bit: “So here you are, ye vagabond! Roaming about all day, and now feed ye!”

  But in winter-time it was different. Winter sends every beast's tail between its legs, and it doesn't spare menfolks either. It drove Lanko and Leiko into their huts. They'd little in the way of warm clothes and what they had on their feet - you couldn't go far in that. It was just enough to hold the warmth from one hut to the other.

  They'd usually climb on to the ledge of the big brick stove so as to be out of the grown-ups' way, and sit there. It wasn't so dull when they were together. They might play at something, or they might talk about the summer, or they might just listen to the grown-ups talking.

  They were sitting like that one day when some of the maids came to Leiko's sister Maryushka. It was getting near New Year, when it's the custom of our maids to tell fortunes. And that's what they were doing. The boys would have liked to look closer, but the maids wouldn't let them near. Drove them off at once, and Maryushka gave them a couple of clouts over the head too.

  “Get back where ye belong!”

  A bit of a shrew, she was, that Maryushka. She'd been a maid grown for many years but never a lad had courted her. She was a comely maid enough, but a bit wry-mouthed. Not much of a flaw, you'd say, but because of it the lads would have none of her. Well, it soured her.

  The boys got up on the stove, snorted a bit and quietened down; but the maids were merry. They sprinkled ashes, they covered the table with flour, they tossed coal about and splashed each other with water. When they were all wet and dirty they just squealed with laughing at each other; only Maryushka was still downcast. She'd stopped believing in spells.

  “It's all foolishness. Just a game.”

  Then one of the maids said: “There's a real way of knowing your fortune, but it's fearsome.”

  “What is it?” asked Maryushka. So that maid told her.

  “My old Granny said the real way to cast a spell was this. Late at night when they're all asleep you have to hang your comb on a thread from the eaves and take it down in the morn, before they're awake. There'll be a sign that'll tell ye all.”

  Well, the other maids were all agog to be told the sign. So that one whose Granny had told her explained it.

  “If there's a hair in the comb then ye'll be wed within the year. If there's none, then it's not your fate, and ye can fell by the hair what your man's hair'll be like.”

  Lanko and Leiko harkened to it all, and guessed Maryushka'd be sure to try her fortune that way. And they both had a grudge against her because of that clout over the head. “Just you wait!” they said. “We'll get even!”

  Lanko didn't go home to sleep that night, he stopped with Leiko on the stove. They lay there, snored a bit, but all the time they kept punching each other - watch, keep awake!

  When all the grown-ups had gone to sleep, the boys heard Maryushka go out into the entry. They crept after her and watched. She climbed up into the attic and fumbled about on the eaves. They marked the place and got back quick into the hut. Maryushka was right behind them; she was shivering and her teeth chattered. Maybe she was cold, or maybe it was fright. She lay down, shivered a bit more and then they could hear she was asleep. That was what the boys were waiting for. They climbed down, put on any clothes they found and crept quietly out. They'd thought before what they were going to do.

  Leiko had a gelding, not quite a roan and not quite a bay, called Golubko. And the boys had got the idea of combing that gelding with Maryushka's comb. It was a bit fearsome in the attic at night, but each wanted to show a bold heart to the other. They found the comb under the eaves, combed some hair from Golubko's coat and put the comb back again. Then they went into the hut and fell fast asleep. They slept late, and when they woke up there was nobody in the hut but Leiko's mother, heating the stove.

  Now, this is what had happened while the boys were asleep. Maryushka got up first in the morning and went to take her comb. And it was full of hair! Well, she was real happy, she was going to have a man with curly hair. So she ran to tell her friends all about it. They took a look at the comb, but there seemed something not quite right about that hair. Sort of queer, it looked, they'd never seen hair like that on any of the lads they knew. And then among it all they saw a hair from a horse's tail. So of course they all started laughing at Maryushka.

  “It's Golubko that's to come courting you,” they said.

  Maryushka was put out and cross, she scolded and rated her friends but they just kept on laughing. And they gave her a nickname too - Golubko's Sweetheart.

  Maryushka came running home to complain to her mother. But the boys hadn't forgotten those clouts on the head and they started jeering from up on the stove.

  “Golubko's Sweetheart! Golubko's Sweetheart!”

  Well, Maryushka burst out crying and sobbing, but her mother guessed whose doing it all was and scolded the boys.

  “See what ye've done, ye shameless brats! The lads don't come to the maid as it is, and now ye must go and make her a laughing-stock!”

  The boys saw the jest had turned out badly for Maryushka, and each blamed the other.

  “You started it!”

  “Nay, you did!”

  Maryushka heard that and knew who'd played the trick on her.

  “I hope ye both see the Blue Snake!” she screamed.

  Then the mother turned on Maryushka. “Hold your tongue, ye ninny! Talking that way! Ye'll bring down trouble on the whole house!”

  But Maryushka only said: “What do I care! I wish I'd never been born!”

  She slammed the door behind her and ran out into the yard, and there she went chasing Golubko with a wooden spade as though it was his fault. Her mother went out, scolded the maid, brought her back in and tried to talk her round. The boys saw they'd be better out of the way so they went to Lanko's. They got up on the stove and sat there quiet as mice. They were sorry for Maryushka but what could they do now? And that about the Blue Snake, they couldn't get it out of their heads. They asked each other in whispers: “Leiko, have ye ever heard of that Blue Snake?”

  “Never in my life, have you?”

  “Nay, I haven't either!”

  They whispered about it a bit, then they decided to ask the grown-ups when the trouble blew over. And that's what they did. When folks had forgotten the trick they'd played on Maryushka, they tried to find out. But whoever they asked put them off with “I know naught of it,” or even threatened them: “I'll take a stick and warm your hides! Let such things be!”

  That made the boys even more curious. What sort of snake could it be that they mustn't even talk about?

  But luck helped them. One day, a holiday it was, Lanko's father came home a bit tipsy and sat down on the earthen bank round the hut wall. Now, the boys knew he got talkative when he'd had a drop, so Lanko took his chance.

  “Father, have ye ever seen the Blue Snake?”

  That seemed to sober the man at once, he even got further away and muttered spells.

  “Avaunt! Avaunt! Harken not, harken not, hearth and home! Not here that word was spoken!”

  Then he warned the boys never to say anything like that again, but the wine was still in him and he himself wanted to talk. So after he'd sat a bit without a word spoken, he said to them: “Come to the river bank. It's a better place to talk freely of - of this and that.”

  They went to the bank. Lanko's father lighted his pipe, then he looked carefully all round about.

  “All right, I'll tell ye,” he said, “or ye may work mischief with your tongues. Harken, then.

  “There's a little snake in our parts, bright blue. It's not more than seven inches long and so light it's no weight at all. When it goes over the grass it doesn't bend a single blade. And it doesn't crawl like other snakes do, it curls itself into a hoop with its head in front, and lifts itself upon its tail and jumps along - so quick ye'd never catch it. And when it jumps like that, it sends a shower of gold out on the right and a soot-black shadow on the left.

  “If ye see it when you're alone it's real good fortune, for ye'll surely find surface gold where that shine went. And a lot of it. It'll be in big nuggets, right on top. But there's a catch in that too. If you pick up too much and drop any of it, even a little bit, then it all turns into plain stone. And ye can never come back for more because ye never find the place again, it goes right out o' your memory.

  “But if the Snake comes to two or three together, or to an artel, then it's black sorrow. They all start quarrelling and such a hate comes on them, they can fight to the death. My father, he was sent away to jail because of that Blue Snake. They were sitting talking, the artel, when it came along. Well, and then there was a fight. Two were killed, and the other five went to jail. And there was no gold at all. That's why folks don't like to talk about the Blue Snake. They're afraid it may come when there are two or three of them together. And it can come anywhere - in the woods or the fields, in the hut or in the street. Aye, and they say there's times it takes the shape of a person, but you can always know it. Because it doesn't leave any tracks on the softest sand. Even the grass doesn't bend under it. That's the first sign, and the second is the gold falling from the right sleeve and the black dust coming from the left.”

  That's what Lanko's father told them, and then he warned them both: “Mind ye never tell anyone all this, and never even think of the Blue Snake when you're together. But if you're alone and no one round, then yell about it if ye like.”

  “And how d'ye call it up?” the boys asked.

  “That,” he said, “I don't know and I wouldn't tell ye if I did. For it's a dangerous business.”

  So their talk ended. Lanko's father warned them again to hold their tongues and never even to think of the snake when they were together.

  At first the boys were careful, they'd keep reminding one another: “Mind out, see ye don't ever talk of - that, and don't think of it when we're together. Think of it when you're alone.”

  But what good was that when they were always together, and they couldn't get that Blue Snake out of their heads?

  It was getting warmer. Water was running down in brooklets and streams everywhere. And where'll you find any better games than you can have with the water when it comes alive again - floating boats, making dams, or setting flutter-mills going? But the street where the boys lived went straight down to the pond and the streams ran away into it and stopped long before the boys were tired of playing with them. What should they do now? They each took a spade and away they went out of the village. There'd be streams coming down from the woods for a long time, they thought, they could play with any of them. And they were right. So they chose the best place and began making a dam. But then an argument started about which could do it best. They decided to settle it - each would make a dam alone. So they went different ways along the stream. Leiko went further down and Lanko maybe fifty paces up. They'd call to each other: “Oooh, look at mine!”

  “And mine - you could build a water-mill by it!”

  All the same, it was work. They both set about it seriously and soon kept their breath for the job, each one wanting to do it best. Now, Leiko had a way of singing when he was working, and he'd put any words to the tune, so long as they rhymed. He started that way now. And what came out was:

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