The White Snake

One time, not in my time, and not in your time but in someone’s time, there lived a young man with clear eyes, a quiet mind and a gentle heart. And because of those qualities, so remarkable yet so little valued, he came to work as a servant for the king. The king treated him like a …servant but came to depend on his judgement and hard work, to the extent that over time, the young man rose to be head of the royal household.

One day, the queen reported her golden ring stolen and because the steward had access to the privy chambers, they accused him of stealing it. ‘Return it by morning or die’, the king told him. But as he hadn’t taken it and had no idea where it was, he sighed, tidied his affairs, such as they were, and went out for one last walk in the forest.

He’d not been walking for long when he came to a sunlit glade, with beautiful purple-headed fritillaries spreading out before him. Suddenly, across and along the path in front of him moved a white snake towards him. Now, snakes being snakes, most people are afraid of them and would lift up a stick and to bash it on its head. But the young man simply looked at the snake and smiled. The snake’s golden eyes stared back, its long green tongue flickering out towards him. Suddenly, it smiled before shimmering into the long grass.

Strange, thought the young man and stranger still, for when the nightingale started singing overhead, he could understand every word. And when he returned to the palace, he could hear the sparrows giggling, talking about the queen who dropped her ring carelessly out of the window, only for the white duck to swallow it. The young man had the duck arrested  and squeezed it hard until it to give up its prize.

The next morning, the king was so happy with the young man who had gotten the ring back, perhaps also feeling a little sheepish, though not enough to say sorry, that he offered the young man the pick of the palace jobs for life. But the young man with the clear eyes, the quiet mind and warm heart had decided it was time to move on. And he asked the king for a horse, some food and a little money. The king resisted at first till, reluctantly, he agreed to the request and so off set the young man along the track and into the forest on a great adventure.

The light shone dimly through the dense oak and lime trees, which lined the forest trail. With night falling, he tethered his horse and climbed up into the branches of a tall tree to sleep for safety’s sake. He marvelled at the wisdom of bats, the exploits of owls, the endless sexual problems of nightjars and the homely tales of the hundreds of insects, sharing their home that night.

The next morning, he travelled on and soon the trail descended through alders and willows towards the lake. He heard splashing and wailing coming from within the reed bed. Three young salmon were thrashing about amid the reeds in the shallow water, stuck. The young man took pity on them and picked them up one by one and threw them into the deeper waters. The salmon raised their heads out of the water and called out, ‘We thank you. We thank you. We salmon remember the river our mothers swam in, the very gravel where we were spawned and we will not forget your bright eyes, your gentle heart and kindly mind. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on uphill through scrubwood forest of rowan and pine. The ground grew sandier till he was suddenly shook from his reverie on horseback. He could hear a shrill, sharp voice coming from the top of an anthill in the middle of the track. The ant queen was commanding her army of ants beneath, berating him for coming too close to her nest. The man dismounted and bowed before the queen, apologising for his inattention. Next, he spent a good hour reworking the path so that it wound round the anthill. Afterwards, the queen of the ants called out to him, ‘Thank you, thank you. We ants remember. We solve complex problems by ingenuity and team work and we will not forget your bright eyes, your courteous heart and your kindly mind. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on, higher into the upper reaches of the forest where birches and scrubby juniper grew out of craggy rocks. There was a commotion up above and three black shapes flopped downwards, bumping onto the mossy floor ahead. The parents of these three young ravens had dumped their dementing offspring out of the nest to fend for themselves. They would die for lack of food, they complained and the young man, perhaps, remembering his own treatment by the king, jumped off his horse and hacked off the horse’s head. The ravens fell straight away on the big fleshy eyes and, after gorging themselves, called out to the young man, ‘Thank you, thank you. We ravens remember. We apply intelligence and strength and travel long distances and we will not forget your bright eyes, your generous mind and your warm heart. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on on foot till he came to a luscious, green valley, where woods of oaks and holly stretched ahead on either side, passed through orchards plump with apples and cherries and on through pastures filled with fat cattle, knee high in the long grass, resting from the sun under elms and ash. The path brought him to a great city, where the noise of the people and traffic and chaos drowned out all the sounds of the birds and wildlife. He could barely hear himself think but it was here that he fell in love with the Princess.

You think he would have had enough of royalty but he saw the Princess’s loveliness and loneliness through the shield of indifference she protected herself by. He took her pride and haughtiness, her snobbery as a guard against the exceeding flattery of suitors and indulgence of the king. And it was here he decided to go a’courting in the springtime to seek her hand in marriage, even though it may cost him dear, his life. For the Princess set each suitor a challenge and if they failed, they died the next day.

The following morning, the Princess took him to the sea shore and threw a golden ring into the sea.   Well, he knew he had no chance of finding it, so he smiled to himself, sat down on his haunches but then heard three voices in unison. He looked up and there were three full grown red salmon, surfing towards him on a big blue wave. The middle one dropped a white clam at his foot, just as the retreating wave carried them back to the sea. The young man opened the clam and inside lay the ring. He laughed happily and gave it to the young Princess.

But she didn’t want to marry a servant and so demanded another challenge, a second proof. She took him into the palace orchard and opened the contents of ten sacks of millet seed, spraying them all over the ground. ‘Pick up every single one and put them back in the sacks.’

The young man sighed, looking around him, then up at the fluffy clouds shifting across the blue sky. What could he do? Then, there was a ruffle in the grass. It grew like whisperings and there he saw the elegant ant queen riding at the head of her army. She gave orders to her ants and, by morning, they had filled all ten sacks.

Still, the Princess was not satisfied. She did not want to marry a servant and so demanded another task, a third proof. ‘Bring me back an apple from the Tree of Life’, she demanded. How, what…where..? The young man had no idea where to find the Tree of Life and realised he would die the next day. So, he tidied up his affairs, paid up his small bills and wandered into the forest one last time, till he came to a green linden tree and sat down under its canopy for a rest. The bright sun dazzled his eyes but he could just make out three dark shapes flying in the sky, diving and soaring, dipping on the warm breeze. Then, one of them let an object fall out of the sky. The young man with the clear eyes, the calm mind and the caring heart held out his palm and caught the apple from the Tree of Life. He laughed and ran back to the city.

He cut the apple in two and gave one half to the Princess and ate the other himself. She fell in love with him at once with his clear eyes, his quiet mind and kind heart and they lived happily ever after.

 

Things may not always be what they seem. This story starts with a snake and ends with an apple and yet paradise is not lost. It is found. And for many people, salmon are cold and slippery; ants destroy everything in their path and ravens come as messengers of 

death and doom. They say that a young man with clear eyes, a calm mind and a warm heart can win no fair lady. But it need not be so…

Never underestimate the joy that a man or woman can gain if they have clear eyes, a quiet mind and a gentle heart.

 

 

With thanks to The Brothers Grimm and, particularly, to Sara Maitland for her retelling of the story of The White Snake in her wonderful book, Gossip from the Forest.

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Kids, yer tea’s ready (part two)

Drawing by Ruth

Drawing by Ruth

This is home  

The next morning was rest day. No school. But there was still plenty of work to be done. Nathan and Julie helped out with the family jobs. This morning, he took a batch of seed corn over to his dad in the field while Julie helped turn over the soil in the garden with her mum.

And yet, along the edge of the forest, the line of trees called out to the children, ‘Come play!’ Once they’d finished all their work, all the young people in their gang, Julie, Nathan, Amina and Ella, David and Biswas, gulped down their food and went straight to their favourite place in the forest. They’d made a swing there from hemp and wound it round a thick, outhanging branch from one of the tall beeches. You could swing way out over the pool with a good push or kick

Sarah shouted after them as they ran towards the trees, ‘Don’t go anywhere near the fields, do you hear me?’  ‘And watch out for bears,’ Julie called back, turning her neck to one side, as she ran. ‘We know, mum. We won’t…’ and they laughed and ran off along the track into the heart of the forest.

Once they got there, Biswas said ‘Anyone got any food? Let’s eat!’ He was always hungry. The sun’s rays dappled the trees and them. By now, it was the middle of the afternoon. So, they shared what they’d brought and started talking. ‘What are we going to do then?’, asked Amina.  ‘We could go deeper into the forest, looking for bears’, said Nathan. ‘You go bear-spotting. I’m going to find sweetcorn,’ Julie said. ‘But we can’t,’ said Amina. ‘It’s dangerous.’ ’Well, we’ve been fine so far and, anyway, it’s better than getting lost in the forest.’ ‘I don’t think so,’ David said. But they split up, regardless. Biswas and Julie went off to harvest sweetcorn. And the others walked deeper into the forest but not before they agreed to meet back at their glade in a little over an hours’ time for sweetcorn and foraged wild berries.

The hour went quickly. When they met up again with berries and sweetcorn in hand, they sat on the grass near the water’s edge and feasted. Biswas used his knife to cut the cobs in half and passed them round. Each of them rubbed the sweet berries all over the cob. It made for a lot of sticky juice on their hands and faces but it was worth it.’ Oh, this is so good!’, cried Ella. They could wipe it off later in the pool. And as they ate, they told stories of their bravery in avoiding capture, slipping under the fence and escaping detection by the farmer’s evil eye. He patrolled his fields regularly and they knew if he caught them, they would be in big trouble. Jail even, it was rumoured! But he was too slow and they were too clever for him, they told each other. And the rest spoke of climbing up tall trees, reaching into the top branches to gain ripest and most succulent dark fruits.

It was after they’d gone into the water to cool down from the hot sun that Amina felt something was wrong. She bobbed under the surface for a moment. ‘Help,’ she managed to say softly, but no one heard her, before disappearing under the water again. The others were all busy doing their own thing and hadn’t noticed her. Although the pond wasn’t deep, they all knew even shallow water could be dangerous. Amina snorted to the surface. Julie and Biswas reacted first, racing over to her, placing their hands under the arms and pulling her up, slippery in the mud, and out onto the bank. Somehow, they managed to get her onto the grass where she coughed up brown water and vomited. Suddenly, she doubled up in agony. ‘Amina, what’s wrong? Tell us what’s the matter?’ ‘My stomach is killing me. It hurts. It really hurts…’  And she screamed again. ‘We’d better get her home’, Julie said, looking at Biswas.

But Amina couldn’t stand. She kept bending down in pain, her arms holding her stomach. ‘Put her on my back’, said Biswas. ‘I’ll carry her and go and get her mum.’ David ran off along the track towards the village. A loud growl through the trees on the other side of the pool made them jump. A brown bear was staring at them, sniffing the air. But Biswas couldn’t lift Amina on his own. She was too heavy and kept slipping off. The bear was making its way around the edge of the pond. Ella saw a split log lay on the floor.  So, they lay her down on that as the bear reared high onto its hind legs and growled. ‘Come on, grab an end!’, ordered Julie.  They carried her away from the water and away from the bear, as fast as they could. Ella picked up a fallen branch of a tree and held it out pointing at the bear.  The breeze threw its scent across to her and she gagged. She glanced over her shoulder.   They’d got to the curve in the track. She threw the log at the bear and ran after her friends, panting up the slope by the time she caught them.  Amina was breathing erratically; short, staccato breaths and then it would stop. What were the dark red blotches appearing on her legs and arms. The children couldn’t help glancing at their own bare arms.

It took so long to get home. Amina’s mum, Nighat, was bringing in the washing. They called to her. She turned and dropped the basket of bedlinen on the ground. She rushed to her daughter and lifted her off the log. ‘What’s happened? What happened to her?’ she cried out. ‘Biswas, her dad is working in the fields. Go get him quickly…now! Go!’ And she carried her child, limp in her arms, muttering nonsence words  inside the house and put her straight to her bed.

She put the kettle on and took clean cloths out of the cupboard. Who could she call? Not a doctor. There wasn’t one, not in this village. The nearest one was over an hour away but it would cost too much, anyway. Without insurance, which they couldn’t afford, they were all vulnerable to falling ill. Already that year, three people, two of them children, had died of a mysterious sickness in the village.

She went to the door and called Julie’s mum, Sara. Everyone turned to Sarah in an emergency. And then she would send for Fatima, Biswas’s mum. She was the village gossip, though dread to think she would be needed. She looked down again at her little girl, shivering, breathing hoarsely. Ruby red blisters were appearing under her finger nails. She didn’t like what she saw. She went outside and called over to her neighbour, ‘Sara, come quick! Sara, something’s wrong with Amina and I don’t know what to do. Come, help us!’

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Drawing by Rosa

Part two of four