Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Enchanted Tsarévich

Once upon a time there was a merchant who had three daughters. It so happened he had one day to go to strange countries to buy wares, and so he asked his daughters, "What shall I bring you from beyond the seas?"

The eldest asked for a new coat, and the next one also asked for a new coat; but the youngest one only took a sheet of paper and sketched a flower on it. "Bring me, bátyushka [father], a flower like this!"

So the merchant went and made a long journey to foreign kingdoms, but he could never see such a flower. So he came back home, and he saw on his way a splendid lofty palace with watchtowers, turrets, and a garden. He went a walk in the garden, and you cannot imagine how many trees he saw and flowers, every flower fairer than the other flowers. And then he looked and he saw a single one like the one which his daughter had sketched.

"Oh," he said, "I will tear off and bring this to my beloved daughter; evidently there is nobody here to watch me."

So he ran up and broke it off, and as soon as he had done it, in that very instant a boisterous wind arose and thunder thundered, and a fearful monster stood in front of him, a formless, winged snake with three heads. "How dared you play the master in my garden!" cried the snake to the merchant. "Why have you broken off a blossom?"

The merchant was frightened, fell on his knees and besought pardon.

"Very well," said the snake, "I will forgive you, but on condition that whoever meets you first, when you reach home, you must give me for all eternity; and, if you deceive me, do not forget, nobody can ever hide himself from me. I shall find you wherever you are."

The merchant agreed to the condition and came back home. And the youngest daughter saw him from the window and ran out to meet him. Then the merchant hung his head, looked at his beloved daughter, and began to shed bitter tears.

"What is the matter with you? Why are you weeping, bátyushka?"

He gave her the blossom and told what had befallen him.

"Do not grieve, bátyushka ," said the youngest daughter. "It is God's gift. Perhaps I shall fare well. Take me to the snake."

So the father took her away, set her in the palace, bade farewell, and set out home. Then the fair maiden, the daughter of the merchant, went in the different rooms, and beheld everywhere gold and velvet; but no one was there to be seen, not a single human soul.

Time went by and went by, and the fair damsel became hungry and thought, "Oh, if I could only have something to eat!" But before ever she had thought, in front of her stood a table, and on the table were dishes and drinks and refreshments. The only thing that was not there was birds' milk. Then she sat down to the table, drank and ate, got up, and it had all vanished.

Darkness now came on, and the merchant's daughter went into the bedroom, wishing to lie down and sleep. Then a boisterous wind rustled round and the three- headed snake appeared in front of her.

"Hail, fair maiden! Put my bed outside this door!"

So the fair maiden put the bed outside the door and herself lay on the bedstead.

She awoke in the morning, and again in the entire house there was not a single soul to be seen. And it all went well with her. Whatever she wished for appeared on the spot.

In the evening the snake flew to her and ordered, "Now, fair maiden, put my bed next to your bedstead."

She then laid it next to her bedstead, and the night went by, and the maiden awoke, and again there was never a soul in the palace.

And for the third time the snake came in the evening and said, "Now, fair maiden, I am going to lie with you in the bedstead."

The merchant's daughter was fearfully afraid of lying on a single bed with such a formless monster. But she could not help herself, so she strengthened her heart and lay down with him.

In the morning the serpent said to her, "If you are now weary, fair maiden, go to your father and your sisters. Spend a day with them, and in the evening come back to me. But see to it that you are not late. If you are one single minute late I shall die of grief."

"No, I shall not be late," said the maiden, the merchant's daughter, and descended the steps; there was a barouche ready for her, and she sat down. That very instant she arrived at her father's courtyard.

Then the father saw, welcomed, kissed her, and asked her, "How has God been dealing with you, my beloved daughter ? Has it been well with you?"

"Very well, father!" And she started telling of all the wealth there was in the palace, how the snake loved her, how whatever she only thought of was in that instant fulfilled.

The sisters heard, and did not know what to do out of sheer envy.

Now the day was ebbing away, and the fair maiden made ready to go back, and was bidding farewell to her father and her sisters, saying, "This is the time I must go back. I was bidden keep to my term."

But the envious sisters rubbed onions on their eyes and made as though they were weeping: "Do not go away, sister; stay until tomorrow."

She was very sorry for her sisters, and stayed one day more.

In the morning she bade farewell to them all and went to the palace. When she arrived it was as empty as before. She went into the garden, and she saw the serpent lying dead in the pond! He had thrown himself for sheer grief into the water.

"Oh, my God, what have I done!" cried out the fair maiden, and she wept bitter tears, ran. up to the pond, hauled the snake out of the water, embraced one head and kissed it with all her might. And the snake trembled, and in a minute turned into a good youth.

"I thank you, fair maiden," he said. "You have saved me from the greatest misfortune. I am no snake, but an enchanted prince."

Then they went back to the merchant's house, were betrothed, lived long, and lived for good and happy things.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Well of the World's End

Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, though it wasn't in my time, nor in your time, nor anyone else's time, there was a girl whose mother had died, and her father had married again. And her stepmother hated her because she was more beautiful than herself, and she was very cruel to her. She used to make her do all the servant's work, and never let her have any peace.

At last, one day, the stepmother thought to get rid of her altogether; so she handed her a sieve and said to her, "Go, fill it at the Well of the World's End and bring it home to me full, or woe betide you" For she thought she would never be able to find the Well of the World's End, and, if she did, how could she bring home a sieve full of water?

Well, the girl started off, and asked everyone she met to tell her where was the Well of the World's End. But nobody knew, and she didn't know what to do, when a queer little old woman, all bent double, told her where it was, and how she could get to it. So she did what the old woman told her, and at last arrived at the Well of the World's End.

But when she dipped the sieve in the cold, cold water, it all ran out again. She tried and she tried again, but every time it was the same; and at last she sate down and cried as if her heart would break. Suddenly she heard a croaking voice, and she looked up and saw a great frog with goggle eyes looking at her and speaking to her.

"What's the matter, dearie?" it said.

"Oh, dear, oh dear," she said, "my stepmother has sent me all this long way to fill this sieve with water from the Well of the World's End, and I can't fill it no how at all."

"Well," said the frog, " if you promise me to do whatever I bid you for a whole night long, I'll tell you how to fill it."

So the girl agreed, and then the frog said:

Stop it with moss and daub it with clay,
And then it will carry the water away;

and then it gave a hop, skip and jump, and went flop into the Well of the World's End.

So the girl looked about for some moss, and lined the bottom of the sieve with it, and over that she put some clay, and then she dipped it once again into the Well of the World's End; and this time, the water didn't run out, and she turned to go away.

Just then the frog popped up its head out of the Well of the World's End, and said, "Remember your promise."

"All right," said the girl; for thought she, "What harm can a frog do me?"

So she went back to her stepmother, and brought the sieve full of water from the Well of the World's End. The stepmother was fine and angry, but she said nothing at all.

That very evening they heard something tap tapping at the door low down, and a voice cried out:

Open the door, my hinny, my heart,
Open the door, my own darling;
Mind you the words that you and I spoke,
Down in the meadow, at the World's End Well.

"Whatever can that be?" cried out the stepmother, and the girl had to tell her all about it, and what she had promised the frog.

"Girls must keep their promises," said the stepmother. "Go and open the door this instant." For she was glad the girl would have to obey a nasty frog.

So the girl went and opened the door, and there was the frog from the Well of the World's End. And it hopped, and it skipped, and it jumped, till it reached the girl, and then it said:

Lift me to your knee, my hinny, my heart;
Lift me to your knee, my own darling;
Remember the words you and I spoke,
Down in the meadow by the World's End Well.

But the girl didn't like to, till her stepmother said, "Lift it up this instant, you hussy! Girls must keep their promises!"

So at last she lifted the frog up on to her lap, and it lay there for a time, till at last it said:

Give me some supper, my hinny, my heart,
Give me some supper, my darling;
Remember the words you and I spake,
In the meadow, by the Well of the World's End.

Well, she didn't mind doing that, so she got it a bowl of milk and bread, and fed it well. And when the frog had finished, it said:

Go with me to bed, my hinny, my heart,
Go with me to bed, my own darling;
Mind you the words you spake to me,
Down by the cold well, so weary.

But that the girl wouldn't do, till her stepmother said, "Do what you promised, girl; girls must keep their promises. Do what you're bid, or out you go, you and your froggie."

So the girl took the frog with her to bed, and kept it as far away from her as she could. Well, just as the day was beginning to break what should the frog say but:

Chop off my head, my hinny, my heart,
Chop off my head, my own darling;
Remember the promise you made to me,
Down by the cold well so weary.

At first the girl wouldn't, for she thought of what the frog had done for her at the Well of the World's End. But when the frog said the words over again, she went and took an axe and chopped off its head, and lo! and behold, there stood before her a handsome young prince, who told her that he had been enchanted by a wicked magician, and he could never be unspelled till some girl would do his bidding for a whole night, and chop off his head at the end of it.

The stepmother was that surprised when she found the young prince instead of the nasty frog, and she wasn't best pleased, you may be sure, when the prince told her that he was going to marry her stepdaughter because she had unspelled him. So they were married and went away to live in the castle of the king, his father, and all the stepmother had to console her was, that it was all through her that her stepdaughter was married to a prince.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Seeking Her Husband at the Great Wall

A little over two hundred years before our era, the first emperor of the Chin dynasty ascended the throne under the name of Shih Huang. This emperor was very cruel towards his subjects, forcing people from every part of the country to come and build the Great Wall to protect his empire. Work never stopped, day or night, with the people carrying heavy loads of earth and bricks under the overseers' whips, lashes, and curses. They received very little food; the clothes they wore were threadbare. So it was scarcely to be wondered at that large numbers of them died every day.

There was a young man, named Wan Hsi-liang, among those who had been pressed into the service of building Emperor Shih Huang's Great Wall. This Wan Hsi-liang had a beautiful and virtuous wife, whose name was Meng Chiang-nu. For a long, long time after her husband was forced to leave her, Meng Chiang-nu had no news of him, and it saddened her to think what he must be suffering, toiling for the accursed emperor. Her hatred of the wicked ruler grew apace with her longing for the husband he had torn from her side. One spring, when the flowers were in bloom and the trees budding, when the grass was a lush green, and the swallows were flying in pairs in the sky, her sorrow seemed to deepen as she walked in the fields, so she sang:

In March the peach is blossom-dressed;
Swallows, mating, build their nest.
Two by two they gaily fly....
Left all alone, how sad am I!

But even when autumn came round, there still was no news about Wan Hsi-liang. It was rumored that the Great Wall was in building somewhere way up north where it was so cold that one would hardly dare stick one's hands out of one's sleeves. When Meng Chiang-nu heard this, she hurriedly made cotton-padded clothes and shoes for her husband. But who should take these to him when it was such a long way to the Great Wall? Pondering the matter over and over, she finally decided she would take the clothes and shoes to Wan Hsi-liang herself.

It was rather cold when she started out. The leaves had fallen from the trees and, as the harvest had been gathered in, the fields were empty and forlornly dismal. It was very lonely for Meng Chiang-nu to walk all by herself, especially since she had never been away from home in her life, and did not know the way and had to ask for directions every now and then.

One evening she failed to reach a town she was going to, so she put up for the night in a little temple in a grove beside the road. Having walked the whole day, she was very tired and fell asleep as soon as she lay down on a stone table. She dreamed her husband was coming towards her, and a feeling of great happiness enveloped her. But then he told her that he had died, and she cried bitterly. When she woke up in the morning, she was overwhelmed by doubts and sadness as she remembered this dream. With curses on the emperor who had torn so many families asunder, Meng Chiang-nu continued on her way.

One day, she came to a small inn by the side of the hilly road. The inn was kept by an old woman who, when she saw Meng Chiang-nu's hot face and dusty clothes, asked where she was going. When Meng Chiang-nu told her, she was deeply moved.

"Aya!" she sighed, "the Great Wall is still far away from here, there are mountains and rivers to cross before you. How can a weak young woman like yourself get there?" But Meng Chiang-nu told the old woman she was determined to get the clothes and shoes to her husband, no matter what the difficulty. The old woman was as much touched by the younger one's willpower as she was concerned about her safety. The next day she accompanied Meng Chiang-nu over a distance to show her sympathy.

And so, Meng Chiang-nu walked on and on and on till, one day, she came to a deep valley between the mountains. The sky was overcast with gray clouds, a strong wind was blowing that chilled the air. She walked quite a long time through the valley without, however, finding a single house. All she could see were weeds, brambles and rocks. It was getting so dark that she could no longer see the road. At the foot of the mountains there was a river, running with water of a murky color. Where should she go? Being at her wit's end, she decided to spend the night among some bushes. As she had not eaten anything for the whole day, she shivered all the more violently in the cold. Thinking of how her husband must be suffering in this icy cold weather, her heart contracted with a pain as sharp as a knife. When Meng Chiang-nu opened her eyes the next morning, she found to her amazement the whole valley and her own body covered with a blanket of snow. How was she to continue her travel?

While she was still quite at a loss as to what to do, a crow suddenly alighted before her. It cawed twice and flew on a short distance, then sat down again in front of her and cawed again twice. Meng Chiang-nu decided that the bird was inviting her to follow its direction and so she resumed her travel, a little cheered because of the company of this living thing, and she began to sing as she walked along:

Thick and fast swirl round the winter snows:
I, Meng Chiang-nu, trudge, bearing winter clothes,
A starveling crow, alas, my only guide,
The Great Wall far, and I far from his side!

Thus she walked past mountain ranges, crossing big rivers as well as small streams.

And thus many a dreary day had passed before she at last reached the Great Wall. How excited she was when she caught sight of it, meandering like a huge serpent over the mountains before her. The wind was piercingly cold and the bare mountains were covered with dry grass only, without a single tree anywhere. Clusters of people were huddling against the Great Wall; these were the people who had been driven here to build it.

Meng Chiang-nu walked along the Great Wall, trying to find her husband among those who were toiling here. She asked after her husband, but nobody knew anything about him, so she had to go on and on inquiring.... She saw what sallow faces the toilers had, their cheekbones protruding through the skin, and she saw many dead lying about, without anybody paying any attention. Her anguish over her husband's unknown fate increased, so that she shed many bitter tears as she continued her search.

At last she learned the sad truth. Her husband had died long ago because of the unbearably hard toil, and his body had been put underground where he fell, under the Great Wall. Hearing this tragic news, Meng Chiang-nu fell into a swoon. Some of the builders tried to revive her, but it was a long while before she regained consciousness. When she did, she burst into a flood of tears, for several days on end, so that many of the toilers wept with her. So bitter was her lament that, suddenly, a length of over two hundred miles of the Great Wall came crumbling down, while a violent storm made the sand and bricks whirl about in the air.

"It was Meng Chiang-nu who, by her tears, caused the Great Wall to crumble!" the people along the edifice told one another with amazement, at the same time filled with hatred of the cruel emperor, who caused nothing but misery to his subjects.

When the emperor heard how Meng Chiang-nu had brought part of his Great Wall down, he immediately went to see for himself what sort of person she was. He found that she was as beautiful as a fairy, so he asked her to become his concubine. Meng Chiang-nu who hated him so deeply for his cruel ways would, of course, not consent to this. But she felt a ruse would serve her purpose better than frankness, so she answered amiably: "Yes, I will, if you do three things for me." The emperor then asked what these three things were and Meng Chiang-nu said: "The first is that you bury my husband in a golden coffin with a silver lid on it; the second is that all your ministers and generals go into mourning for my husband and attend his funeral; the third is that you attend his funeral yourself, wearing deep mourning as his son would do." Being so taken with her beauty, the emperor consented to her requests at once. Everything was, therefore, arranged accordingly. In funeral procession, Emperor Shih Huang walked closely behind the coffin, while a cortege of all his courtiers and generals followed him. The emperor anticipated happily the enjoyment the beautiful, new concubine would give him.

But Meng Chiang-nu, when she saw her husband properly buried, kowtowed before his tomb in homage to the deceased, crying bitterly for a long time. Then, all of a sudden, she jumped into the river that flowed close by the tomb. The emperor was infuriated at being thwarted in his desires. He ordered his attendants to pull her out of the water again. But before they could seize her, Meng Chiang-nu had turned into a beautiful, silvery fish and swam gracefully out of sight, deep down into the green-blue water.