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Animals Language

Source: Hero Tales And Legends Of The Serbians

The universality of folk-lore is curiously illustrated in the
following tale which is strikingly like a story native to the negroes
of Western Africa. In this the hero is granted, as a boon by the
King of the Animals, the gift of understanding animal language; he
is warned that if he divulges to any that he possesses this gift he
will die on the instant; he is made rich by the possession of it;
he laughs at a conversation between animals which he overhears;
his wife demands to know the cause of his laughter. To this point
the two stories are identical, but in the West African tale the man
divulges the secret and pays the penalty with his life, whereas the
Serbian conclusion is very much less tame, as will be seen.

A wealthy peasant had a shepherd, who served him for a great number
of years most honestly and faithfully. One day, as he drove his
sheep through a forest to the pasture, he heard a hissing sound,
and wondered what it could be. Listening carefully he went nearer
and nearer to the spot whence the sound came, and he saw that the
forest was on fire and that the hissing proceeded from a snake that
was surrounded by flames. The shepherd watched to see what the poor
creature would do in its trouble: and when the snake saw the shepherd,
it exclaimed from the midst of the flames: "O shepherd, I pray of you,
save me from this fire!" Then the shepherd reached out his crook and
the snake entwined itself swiftly round the stick, round his arm,
on to his shoulders and round his neck.

When the shepherd realized what was happening he was seized with
horror, and cried out: "What are you about to do, ungrateful
creature! Did I save your life only to lose my own?" And the snake
answered him: "Have no fear, my saviour! But take me to my father's
house! My father is the king of the snake-world."

The shepherd endeavoured to move the snake to pity and prayed it to
excuse him, for he could not leave his sheep. Thereupon the snake said
to him: "Be comforted, my friend! Do not trouble about your sheep;
nothing amiss will happen to them, but now do hasten to my father's
house!" So the shepherd went with the snake round his neck through
the forest, till he came at length to a doorway constructed entirely
of serpents. When they came near the gate, the shepherd's guide
hissed to its servants, whereupon all the snakes instantly untwined
themselves, leaving a way open for the shepherd, who passed through
unmolested. Then the snake said to its preserver: "When we come before
my father he will surely give you, as reward for your kindness to me,
whatever you may wish: gold, silver and precious stones; but you should
not accept anything of that kind. I would advise you to ask for the
language of animals. He will undoubtedly be opposed to your wish,
but finally he will yield."

They now entered the apartments of the king, who, with evident relief,
inquired: "My son, where have you been all this time?" The reptile
then told all about the fire in the forest and of the kindness
of the shepherd, who had saved his life. At this the snake-king
turned with emotion to the shepherd: "What reward can I give you for
having saved the life of my son?" he said. The shepherd answered:
"I desire nothing but the power of understanding and speaking the
language of animals." But the monarch said: "That is not for you,
for if I give you that power, and you should impart the secret
to another, you will instantly die. Therefore choose some other
gift." But the shepherd insisted: "If you wish to reward me, give
me the language of animals: if you do not care to gratify my wish,
no more need be said; I bid you farewell!" And indeed he turned to
go, but the king, seeing his determination, stopped him, exclaiming:
"Come here, my friend! Since you so strongly desire the language
of animals, the gift shall not be withheld; open your mouth!" The
shepherd obeyed, and the snake-king blew into his mouth, and said:
"Now, blow into my mouth!" The shepherd did as he was told, and the
snake-king blew a second time in the shepherd's mouth, and then said:
"Now you have the language of animals. Go in peace; but be sure not
to impart your secret to another, else you will die that very moment!"

The shepherd took leave of his friends and as he returned through
the woods he heard and understood everything the birds, plants and
other living creatures were saying to each other. When he reached
his flock and found all his sheep safe as had been promised, he lay
on the grass to rest.

The Buried Treasure

Hardly had he settled himself, than two ravens alighted on a tree
near by and began to converse: "If this shepherd knew what is under
the spot where that black lamb is lying, he would surely dig in the
earth; he would discover a cave full of silver and gold."

The shepherd at once went to his master and told him of the buried
treasure. The latter drove a cart to the place indicated, dug deeply
in the earth and lo! he found a cave full of silver and gold, the
contents of which he placed in his cart and carried home. This master
was an honest and generous man, and he gave the entire treasure to
his shepherd, saying: "Take this, my son; it was to you that God gave
it! I would advise you to build a house, to marry and start some good
business with this gold."

The shepherd did as his kindly master advised him, and, little by
little he multiplied his wealth and became the richest man, not
only in his village, but in the whole district. He now hired his own
shepherds, cattle-drivers and swineherds to keep his great property
in good order. One day, just before Christmas, he said to his wife:
"Prepare wine and food, for to-morrow we will go to our farms and
feast our servants." His wife did as he bade, and the next morning
they went to their farms, and the master said to his men: "Now come
one and all, eat and drink together; as for the sheep I will myself
watch them to-night."

So the kind man went to guard his sheep. About midnight, wolves began
to howl and his dogs barked a defiance. Said the wolves in their own
language to the dogs: "Can we come and kill the sheep? There will be
enough for you also." Thereupon the dogs answered in their own tongue:
"O come by all means, we also would like to have a feast!" But amongst
the dogs there was a very old one who had only two teeth left. That
faithful animal barked furiously at the wolves: "To the devil with
you all! So long as I have these two teeth, you shall not touch my
master's sheep!" And the master heard and understood every word they
uttered. Next morning he ordered his servants to kill all his dogs,
except the old one. The servants began to implore their master, saying:
"Dear master, it is a pity to kill them!" But the master would not
suffer any remonstrance, and sternly ordered: "Do as I bid you!" Then
he and his wife mounted their horses and started for home, he on a
horse and she on a mare. As they journeyed, the horse left the mare
a little behind and he neighed, saying: "Hurry up, why do you dawdle
behind?" And the mare answered: "Eh, it is not hard for you--you are
carrying only your master, and I am carrying a despotic woman whose
rules are a burden to the whole household."

The Importunate Wife

Hearing this, the master turned his head and burst into laughter. His
wife noticing his sudden mirth, spurred on her mare, and when she
reached her husband she asked him why he had laughed. He answered:
"There is no reason, I just laughed." But the woman was not satisfied
with this reply and would not give her husband any peace. He
endeavoured in vain to excuse himself, saying: "Don't keep on asking
me; if I tell you the true reason why I laughed, I shall instantly
die!" But she did not believe her husband, and the more he refused
to tell her, the more she insisted that he should do so, until at
last the poor man was worn out by her persistence.

Directly they arrived home, therefore, the man ordered a coffin to
be made, and, when it was ready and he had it placed in front of the
house-door, he said to his wife: "I shall lie down in this coffin,
for the moment I tell you why I laughed, I shall die." So he laid
himself in the coffin, and as he took a last look around, he saw his
faithful old dog, coming from the fields. The poor animal approached
his master's coffin and sat near his head howling with grief. When
the master saw this, he requested his wife to give it food. The
woman brought bread and gave it to the dog, who would not even look
at it, still less eat it. The piece of bread attracted a cock, which
came forward and began to peck at it; the dog reproached him saying:
"You insatiable creature! You think of nothing but food, and you fail
to see that our dear master is about to die!"

To this reprimand the cock retorted: "Let him die, since he is such
a foolish man! I have a hundred wives, and I gather them all round a
grain of corn, which I happen to find; and then, when they have all
assembled, I swallow it myself! If any of them should protest, I just
peck at them; but he, the fool, is not able to rule a single wife."

At this the man jumped out of the coffin, took a stick and called
to his wife: "Come in the house, wife, and I shall tell you why
I laughed!"

Seeing the obvious intention of her husband, the woman begged him to
desist, and promised that nevermore would she be curious, or try to
pry into his affairs.

Next: The Stepmother And Her Stepdaughter

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