As was pointed out to me earlier, my protagonist in the original posting of this story was quite frankly too stupid to live (and honestly, I’m amazed I didn’t twig to that one myself, with hindsight – I may not live in Russia, but I do live in a cottage in the countryside, and I wouldn’t be so stupid as to let the cupboard run bare right before winter, despite having a car and access to shops!) so after a considerable amount of rewriting and pondering, here is a better version of the story! After all, I rather suspect that magical snakes of wisdom would not pass on their lore to someone who was too stupid to lay in a decent store of food and wood right before winter – natural selection would rapidly remove the idiot from the world, I suspect…
The Forbidden Language – The Tale of the Snake Sister
Once, long ago, in the far distant reaches of Russia, there was a girl who dwelt in a little wooden cottage painted bright colours, a splash of summer against the wild wood. One sunny morning in early autumn, she gathered up her basket and earth green mantle and left the cottage on one of her usual expeditions in search of autumn berries, nuts, and kindling to store for the coming winter. She ventured along the more familiar footpaths in the nearby woodlands, well known and well trodden, safe in the bright daylight and less perilous by night than some, and soon realised that she had already gathered all the fruit to be found there, and what few nuts were left had fallen prey to hungry squirrels. Undeterred, she turned about and headed for deeper reaches of the forest, and soon found a little known track that opened off to one side, framed by oak and ash and thorn, clad in the brightly painted leaves of the season and shrouded by wisps of murky mist. Curiosity can make a person do things that, with hindsight, they may think the better off, and despite her misgivings, she ventured off down the winding narrow path, ducking under low hanging branches and tree leaves bedecked with water droplets that the wind blew onto her in passing until her dark hair clung damply to her pale cheeks. Brown eyes straining in the darkness, she moved ever onward, seeking always for the familiar shapes of acorn and hazelnut, until, without warning, the ground opened before her feet and she fell into darkness.
She woke to the feeling of loam beneath her back, the heavy fragrance of it filling her nostrils. Fingers flexing, she felt fallen leaves give slightly as she slowly sat up and looked around. Darkness was all she could see, and she began to feel fear, fear that was worsened by the soft sound of something she could not identify, like high trees on a breezy summer day, and yet not like. Eyes straining in the darkness, she gazed about her, until something began to glow, softly silver in the darkness, and she began to make out sinuous shapes in the black. Snakes. Many, many snakes, moving together, in and out of a sinuous, coiled pattern that never ended. Panic reigned for a few moments, and, scrambling up, she scrabbled at the sides of the pit, seeking desperately for a way out and finding none, only the loam under her fingers and the sound of snakes echoing in her ears. The hissing began to form into a sort of song, and she found herself listening, panic forgotten for a while. Singing sibilently, the snakes soothed, and as they sang, she sank to her knees again and listened:
‘Mortal child, so fair and wild,
Here you stand, far beneath the land,
Above, the stars, so bright and far,
yet have no fear, for we are near,
we sing our song, all winter long.’
The girl found herself swaying slowly back and forth to the sound of this odd lullaby, repeated as it was by so many snakes. The silvery light given out by a round stone set in the walls high above her bathed her face, sinking into her skin and feeding her, mind, body and soul, and the snakes continued to sing, the queen of them, a marvellous creature as silver as the moon, giving her earth wisdom and root wisdom, slow, deep breathing heartbeat of the winter world as time turned beneath her and she paused, stopped in that one long moment. The snake queen taught her, during that seemingly eternal night, how to speak with plants, for long had they sought a suitable snake sister to pass the lore onto, that it might better enrich the human world. Yet one condition they set upon this learning – that she never name Mugwort, that wort so blessed by the moon, out loud, for should she do so, she would forget all she had been taught and be no more than she had been before she chose the darkened path into the forests. This they did that she would always think before speaking, and better appreciate the world about her. Days passed to weeks, and weeks to months, autumn becoming winter’s long season until at long last, the cold waned and far above the deep pit, the wind warmed as it slid about the trees in its endless trek. The snakes finally knew that it was time, and, working swiftly, they created a braided ladder from their own bodies. The girl, rising from the loam in which she had been entombed all winter, made her way slowly up this living ladder and, standing in the warmth of the sun, knew herself renewed. Gathering her earth green mantle about her, she cast about for her willow basket and realised that a new thicket of willow saplings stood where it had been so hastily discarded. Laying a hand on the silken bark, she listened a moment to the slow, wood deep, bark rich conversation of the trees as they spoke in watery tones, lessons of yielding and strength bound together in partnership. Smiling, she turned and moved down the path towards her home, never looking back, moving as if in a trance and greeting all the plants as she went.
Sadly for the world, there came a day when the girl was walking with her lover in the forest. Summer had come, and they walked hand in hand, sun caressing skin with warm golden rays. He was laughingly asking her the names of plants, and she, basking in the glory that came with knowing herself loved, was answering, bestowing brilliant smiles about her as she did so. They came at length to a tall, silvery plant that grew by the path, leaves reaching towards the sky.
“What is that one, so tall and fair?” He asked, curious, and knowing he would forget the answer moments after he heard it.
“That be Mugwort.” She replied, and the world about her went silent as the language of the plants fled her forever. The snakes sighed in their silent slumber, and settled down to wait for another snake sister, one who could learn the language of plants and would keep it, because of, and in spite of, love. And there they still wait to this day. Perhaps they have already passed the lore on – or perhaps they wait for another snake sister, snake brother – perhaps they wait for you, dear reader?