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Lithuanian fairy tale
Translated by Irina Zheleznova
Illustrated by A.Sklutauskajte
Long, long ago, in times gone by, there lived an old man and an old woman. They had twelve sons and three daughters the youngest of whom was called Spruce.
One summer evening the sisters went for a bathe. They swam and splashed about, and, having had their fill of it, climbed out on shore and reached for their clothes. Spruce looked, and there, coiled up in the sleeve of her shift, she saw a grass snake! What was she to do? Her older sister snatched up a stake in order to chase it out but the grass snake turned to Spruce and said in a human voice:
"Spruce, my dear, promise to marry me and then I'll crawl out myself."
Now, this only made the tears well up in Spruce's eyes, for how could she marry a snake, so she cried angrily:
"Give me back my shift without more ado and yourself crawl off to wherever it is you came from! "
But the grass snake stayed where he was and said as before:
"Promise to marry me and I'll crawl out."
Not knowing what to do, Spruce said that she would, and the grass snake at once crawled out of her shift and away.
Before three days had passed a great number of grass snakes came crawling into the old people's front yard, frightening everyone half out of their wits. They forced their way into the hut, and, approaching Spruce and her mother and father, said that they had come a'matchmaking.
At first the two old people were angered and amazed and would not hear of such a thing, but, learning that Spruce had given her word and being faced with such a vast number of snakes, they were much troubled. Whether they wanted to or not, the youngest and prettiest of their daughters would be marrying a grass snake and there was little they could do about it.
However, they would not give their consent to the match all at once. They asked the matchmakers to wait in the hut and themselves stole off quietly to an old neighbour of theirs and told her all about it.
Said the neighbour:
"It's easy to fool the grass snakes, for they are trusting and good-natured. Dress up a goose in a bride's clothes and give it to the matchmakers instead of your daughter."
And that was just what they did. They dressed up a white goose in a bride's clothes, but no sooner had the matchmakers gone off with it than a cuckoo-bird sitting in a birch-tree called out after them:
The grass snakes flew into a rage, they threw out the goose, came back and demanded to be given the true bride. And Spruce's parents, at their old neighbour's advice, dressed a white ewe in bridal clothes and gave it to them.
But as the grass snakes started on their way the cuckoo-bird called out again:
The grass snakes turned back, hissing with rage, and demanded to be given the true bride.
They were given a white calf this time, but the cuckoo-bird having warned them again, came back angrier than ever and threatened Spruce's parents with droughts and floods and hunger if they failed to keep their word.
Her mother and father and her sisters and brothers wept over Spruce but as there was nothing to be done they dressed her up in bridal clothes and gave her to the grass snakes. Off went Spruce with the grass snakes, and the cuckoo-bird called out:
"Make haste and get home
On went Spruce and her escorts and at last they came to the shore of the sea. There a handsome youth met them and told Spruce that he was the very same grass snake that she had found in the sleeve of her shift.
They made off at once for the nearest island and descended to the bottom of the sea where stood a rich palace. It was there they were married and held their wedding, and they drank and feasted and danced for three whole weeks.
The palace was filled with many lovely things and Spruce felt gay and happy there. A peace descended on her heart and as the days went by she forgot her parents and her old home.
Nine years passed, and Spruce now had four children - three sons, Oak, Ash and Birch, and a daughter, the youngest of the four, whom she named Little Aspen.
One day Spruce's oldest son, who had been running about and playing pranks, began asking his mother where her parents were.
"Where do they live, mother?" asked he. "I would so like to pay them a visit!"
It was only then that Spruce remembered her mother and father and her whole family and set to wondering how they were and whether they were alive or not. She was filled with a great longing to see them and told her husband so.
At first Grass Snake would not hear of it, but she begged him again and again and he finally agreed to let her go.
"Only you must make me some yarn out of this tow first," said he, and, giving her some silky tow, pointed at the spinning-wheel.
Spruce set to work, she spun day and night, but the bundle of tow grew no smaller. It came to her then that Grass Snake was trying to trick her, that the tow was magic tow and that she could spin no yarn out of it no matter how hard she tried.
So off she went to see an old woman, a sorceress, who lived close by.
Said she to her in pleading tones:
"Please, mother, please, my dear, show me how to spin this tow."
"You must light the stove and throw the tow in the fire," the old woman told her. "You will never be able to do anything with it otherwise."
Spruce came home, and, lighting the stove as if to bake some bread, threw the tow in the fire. It flared up and she saw a toad the size of a large battledore jumping about in the flames, a silky thread running out of its fiery mouth.
The fire died and the toad vanished, but the silvery yarn remained.
Spruce hid the yarn and again asked her husband to let her go for a few days to visit her parents.
This time Grass Snake dragged a pair of iron shoes from under the bench.
"You can go as soon as you wear these out," said he.
Spruce put on the shoes and began walking and stamping about in them and trying to break them on some sharp stones. But the shoes were thick and strong, and, try hard as she would, she could not wear them out. In fact, there was no wearing them out at all, she now saw, they would last her all her life long.
So off Spruce went to ask the old sorceress for her counsel again.
"Take the shoes to a blacksmith, let him put them in a forge and heat them to white heat," said the old woman.
Spruce did as she was told, and once the shoes were burnt through, she wore them out in three days and again began pleading with her husband to let her go to see her parents.
"Very well," said he. "Only bake a pie first, for it is not meet to go visiting anyone without taking them something good to eat for a present."
But he had all the dishes in the palace put away that there might be none left for Spruce to mix the dough in.
Spruce cudgeled her brains for a long time trying to think how to bring water from a well without a pail and how to mix dough without a trough, but as there was nothing she could think of she went to see the old woman again.
Said the old woman:
"Do not try to draw water from a well but take a sieve, stop up the holes with leaven and use it to scoop up some water from a stream. Mix the dough in the same sieve."
Spruce did as she was told. She mixed the dough, baked some pies and prepared to set off with her children. Grass Snake saw them off, he brought them out on to the shore and said:
"Do not spend more than nine days in your parents' house but return on the tenth. Come out on to the shore with only the children and no one else and call to me thus:
"If alive you are, my husband.
If the sea boils up and the foam is milk-white, you will know that I am alive; if it boils up and the foam is blood-red, then you will know that I am no more. As for you, children, mind that you tell no one what you have just heard."
Having said this, he bade them goodbye and wished them a happy return.
There was no end to the rejoicing when Spruce appeared in her parents' house. All her kinsfolk and their neighbours, too, came to have a look at her and everyone wanted to know if she was happy with Grass Snake. She was kept busy answering their questions and telling them about her life, and they vied with each other in speaking kindly to her and in treating her to the best they had in the way of food and drink.
Spruce did not notice how the days flew.
In the meantime her parents and her twelve brothers and sisters were racking their brains, trying to think how to keep Spruce with them and not let her go back to Grass Snake. At last they decided to worm out of her children how Spruce was to call him up from the bottom of the sea, for then they could go there, lure him up out of the depths and kill him.
Her brothers took Oak, Spruce's oldest son, to the forest, stood round him in a circle and began questioning him. But the boy pretended that he knew nothing, and threaten him as they would, they could get nothing out of him. They let him go then but told him not to say a word about it to his mother.
On the next day they took Ash to the forest and questioned him, and on the day after that, Birch, but learnt nothing from either of them.
At last they led the youngest of Spruce's children, Little Aspen, to the forest. At first she, too, said that she knew nothing, but when they threatened to thrash her she blurted out the secret.
Then Spruce's twelve brothers took their sharp scythes, went to the shore of the sea and called out:
"If alive you are, my husband.
Hearing them, Grass Snake swam up from the sea, and the twelve brothers fell on him and slashed him to death with their scythes. After that they came back home but they said not a word about what had happened to Spruce.
Nine days passed and it was time for Spruce to leave. She bade all her kin goodbye, and, going with her children to the shore of the sea, called out:
"If alive you are, my husband,
At this the sea darkened and boiled up with a roar, and Spruce looked and saw that the foam cresting the waves was blood-red. Suddenly what did she hear but her husband's voice saying to her:
"It was your twelve brothers that slashed me to death with their scythes, and it was Little Aspen, our little daughter, who betrayed me."
Spruce was filled with grief and horror. The tears rolled from her eyes, and, turning to cowardly Little Aspen, she spoke these words:
"Be a tree, a fearful tree and timid,
Then, addressing her brave and faithful sons, she said:
"You will grow to be great trees and handsome,
And as she said so it was.
Oak, Ash and Birch grew up to be tall and mighty trees and so they remain to this day, but Aspen trembles at the touch of the lightest breeze and all because she was once so frightened of her uncles that she betrayed her own father.
Author: Lithuanian fairy tale; illustrated by Sklutauskajte A.
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