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THE STORY OF A SHEPHERD WHO SLEPT ALL WINTER 

Story Frontispiece

Story Frontispiece

Once upon a time there was a shepherd who was called Batcha. During the summer he pastured his flocks high up on the mountain where he had a little hut and a sheepfold.

One day in autumn while he was lying on the ground, idly blowing his pipes, he chanced to look down the mountain slope. There he saw a most amazing sight. A great army of snakes, hundreds and hundreds in number, was slowly crawling to a rocky cliff not far from where he was lying.

When they reached the cliff, every serpent bit off a leaf from a plant that was growing there. They then touched the cliff with the leaves and the rock opened. One by one they crawled inside. When the last one had disappeared, the rock closed.

Batcha blinked his eyes in bewilderment.

“What can this mean?” he asked himself. “Where are they gone? I think I’ll have to climb up there myself and see what that plant is. I wonder will the rock open for me?”

He whistled to Dunay, his dog, and left him in charge of the sheep. Then he made his way over to the cliff and examined the mysterious plant. It was something he had never seen before.

He picked a leaf and touched the cliff in the same place where the serpents had touched it. Instantly the rock opened.

Batcha stepped inside. He found himself in a huge cavern the walls of which glittered with gold and silver and precious stones. A golden table stood in the center and upon it a monster serpent, a very king of serpents, lay coiled up fast asleep. The other serpents, hundreds and hundreds of them, lay on the ground around the table. They also were fast asleep. As Batcha walked about, not one of them stirred.

Batcha sauntered here and there examining the walls and the golden table and the sleeping serpents. When he had seen everything he thought to himself:

“It’s very strange and interesting and all that, but now it’s time for me to get back to my sheep.”

It’s easy to say: “Now I’m going,” but when Batcha tried to go he found he couldn’t, for the rock had closed. So there he was locked in with the serpents.

He was a philosophical fellow and so, after puzzling a moment, he shrugged his shoulders and said:

“Well, if I can’t get out I suppose I’ll have to stay here for the night.”

With that he drew his cape about him, lay down, and was soon fast asleep.

He was awakened by a rustling murmur. Thinking that he was in his own hut, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. Then he saw the glittering walls of the cavern and remembered his adventure.

The old king serpent still lay on the golden table but no longer asleep. A movement like a slow wave was rippling his great coils. All the other serpents on the ground were facing the golden table and with darting tongues were hissing:

“Is it time? Is it time?”

The old king serpent slowly lifted his head and with a deep murmurous hiss said:

“Yes, it is time.”

He stretched out his long body, slipped off the golden table, and glided away to the wall of the cavern. All the smaller serpents wriggled after him.

Batcha followed them, thinking to himself:

“I’ll go out the way they go.”

The old king serpent touched the wall with his tongue and the rock opened. Then he glided aside and the serpents crawled out, one by one. When the last one was out, Batcha tried to follow, but the rock swung shut in his face, again locking him in.

The old king serpent hissed at him in a deep breathy voice:

“Hah, you miserable man creature, you can’t get out! You’re here and here you stay!”

“But I can’t stay here,” Batcha said. “What can I do in here? I can’t sleep forever! You must let me out! I have sheep at pasture and a scolding wife at home in the valley. She’ll have a thing or two to say if I’m late in getting back!”

Batcha pleaded and argued until at last the old serpent said:

“Very well, I’ll let you out, but not until you have made me a triple oath that you won’t tell anyone how you came in.”

Batcha agreed to this. Three times he swore a mighty oath not to tell anyone how he had entered the cavern.

“I warn you,” the old serpent said, as he opened the wall, “if you break this oath a terrible fate will overtake you!”

Without another word Batcha hurried through the opening.

Once outside he looked about him in surprise. Everything seemed changed. It was autumn when he had followed the serpents into the cavern. Now it was spring!

“What has happened?” he cried in fright. “Oh, what an unfortunate fellow I am! Have I slept through the winter? Where are my sheep? And my wife—what will she say?”

With trembling knees he made his way to his hut. His wife was busy inside. He could see her through the open door. He didn’t know what to say to her at first, so he slipped into the sheepfold and hid himself while he tried to think out some likely story.

While he was crouching there, he saw a finely dressed gentleman come to the door of the hut and ask his wife where her husband was.

The woman burst into tears and explained to the stranger that one day in the previous autumn her husband had taken out his sheep as usual and had never come back.

“Dunay, the dog,” she said, “drove home the sheep and from that day to this nothing has ever been heard of my poor husband. I suppose a wolf devoured him, or the witches caught him and tore him to pieces and scattered him over the mountain. And here I am left, a poor forsaken widow! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!”

Her grief was so great that Batcha leaped out of the sheepfold to comfort her.

“There, there, dear wife, don’t cry! Here I am, alive and well! No wolf ate me, no witches caught me. I’ve been asleep in the sheepfold—that’s all. I must have slept all winter long!”

At sight and sound of her husband, the woman stopped crying. Her grief changed to surprise, then to fury.

“You wretch!” she cried. “You lazy, good-for-nothing loafer! A nice kind of shepherd you are to desert your sheep and yourself to idle away the winter sleeping like a serpent! That’s a fine story, isn’t it, and I suppose you think me fool enough to believe it! Oh, you—you sheep’s tick, where have you been and what have you been doing?”

She flew at Batcha with both hands and there’s no telling what she would have done to him if the stranger hadn’t interfered.

“There, there,” he said, “no use getting excited! Of course he hasn’t been sleeping here in the sheepfold all winter. The question is, where has he been? Here is some money for you. Take it and go along home to your cottage in the valley. Leave Batcha to me and I promise you I’ll get the truth out of him.”

The woman abused her husband some more and then, pocketing the money, went off.

As soon as she was gone, the stranger changed into a horrible looking creature with a third eye in the middle of his forehead.

“Good heavens!” Batcha gasped in fright. “He’s the wizard of the mountain! Now what’s going to happen to me!”

Batcha had often heard terrifying stories of the wizard, how he could himself take any form he wished and how he could turn a man into a ram.

“Aha!” the wizard laughed. “I see you know me! Now then, no more lies! Tell me: where have you been all winter long?”

At first Batcha remembered his triple oath to the old king serpent and he feared to break it. But when the wizard thundered out the same question a second time and a third time, and grew bigger and more horrible looking each time he spoke, Batcha forgot his oath and confessed everything.

“Now come with me,” the wizard said. “Show me the cliff. Show me the magic plant.”

What could Batcha do but obey? He led the wizard to the cliff and picked a leaf of the magic plant.

“Open the rock,” the wizard commanded.

Batcha laid the leaf against the cliff and instantly the rock opened.

“Go inside!” the wizard ordered.

But Batcha’s trembling legs refused to move.

The wizard took out a book and began mumbling an incantation. Suddenly the earth trembled, the sky thundered, and with a great hissing whistling sound a monster dragon flew out of the cavern. It was the old king serpent whose seven years were up and who was now become a flying dragon. From his huge mouth he breathed out fire and smoke. With his long tail he swished right and left among the forest trees and these snapped and broke like little twigs.

The wizard, still mumbling from his book, handed Batcha a bridle.

“Throw this around his neck!” he commanded.

Batcha took the bridle but was too terrified to act. The wizard spoke again and Batcha made one uncertain step in the dragon’s direction. He lifted his arm to throw the bridle over the dragon’s head, when the dragon suddenly turned on him, swooped under him, and before Batcha knew what was happening he found himself on the dragon’s back and he felt himself being lifted up, up, up, above the tops of the forest trees, above the very mountains themselves.

On they went riding high up into the heavens

On they went riding high up into the heavens

For a moment the sky was so dark that only the fire, spurting from the dragon’s eyes and mouth, lighted them on their way.

The dragon lashed this way and that in fury, he belched forth great floods of boiling water, he hissed, he roared, until Batcha, clinging to his back, was half dead with fright.

Then gradually his anger cooled. He ceased belching forth boiling water, he stopped breathing fire, his hisses grew less terrifying.

“Thank God!” Batcha gasped. “Perhaps now he’ll sink to earth and let me go.”

But the dragon was not yet finished with punishing Batcha for breaking his oath. He rose still higher until the mountains of the earth looked like tiny ant-hills, still up until even these had disappeared. On, on they went, whizzing through the stars of heaven.

At last the dragon stopped flying and hung motionless in the firmament. To Batcha this was even more terrifying than moving.

“What shall I do? What shall I do?” he wept in agony. “If I jump down to earth I’ll kill myself and I can’t fly on up to heaven! Oh, dragon, have mercy on me! Fly back to earth and let me go and I swear before God that never again until death will I offend you!”

Batcha’s pleading would have moved a stone to pity but the dragon, with an angry shake of his tail, only hardened his heart.

Suddenly Batcha heard the sweet voice of the skylark that was mounting to heaven.

“Skylark!” he called. “Dear skylark, bird that God loves, help me, for I am in great trouble! Fly up to heaven and tell God Almighty that Batcha, the shepherd, is hung in midair on a dragon’s back. Tell Him that Batcha praises Him forever and begs Him to deliver him.”

The skylark carried this message to heaven and God Almighty, pitying the poor shepherd, took some birch leaves and wrote on them in letters of gold. He put them in the skylark’s bill and told the skylark to drop them on the dragon’s head.

So the skylark returned from heaven and, hovering over Batcha, dropped the birch leaves on the dragon’s head.

The dragon instantly sank to earth, so fast that Batcha lost consciousness.

When he came to himself he was sitting before his own hut. He looked about him. The dragon’s cliff had disappeared. Otherwise everything was the same.

It was late afternoon and Dunay, the dog, was driving home the sheep. There was a woman coming up the mountain path.

Batcha heaved a great sigh.

“Thank God I’m back!” he said to himself. “How fine it is to hear Dunay’s bark! And here comes my wife, God bless her! She’ll scold me, I know, but even if she does, how glad I am to see her!”

————–

From: THE SHOEMAKER’S APRON – 20 Czech & Slovak Folk Tales

ISBN: 9781909302440

URL: http://abelapublishing.com/the-shoemakers-apron–20-czech-and-slovak-folk-tales_p25032987.htm

eBooks: http://abelapublishing.com/the-shoemakers-apron–20-czech-and-slovak-folk-tales_p24975669.htm PDF & ePub formats – only US$0.50 or GBP0.25

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There is a dreadful place in Persia called the “Valley of the Angel of Death.” That terrific minister of God’s wrath, according to tradition, has resting-places upon the earth and his favourite abodes. He is surrounded by ghools, horrid beings who, when he takes away life, feast upon the carcasses.

The natural shape of these monsters is terrible; but they can assume those of animals, such as cows or camels, or whatever they choose, often appearing to men as their relations or friends, and then they do not only transform their shapes, but their voices also are altered. The frightful screams and yells which are often heard amid these dreaded ravines are changed for the softest and most melodious notes. Unwary travellers, deluded by the appearance of friends, or captivated by the forms and charmed by the music of these demons, are allured from their path, and after feasting for a few hours on every luxury, are consigned to destruction.

The number of these ghools has greatly decreased since the birth of the Prophet, and they have no power to hurt those who pronounce his name in sincerity of faith. These creatures are the very lowest of the supernatural world, and, besides being timid, are extremely stupid, and consequently often imposed upon by artful men.

The natives of Isfahan, though not brave, are the most crafty and acute people upon earth, and often supply the want of courage by their address. An inhabitant of that city was once compelled to travel alone at night through this dreadful valley. He was a man of ready wit, and fond of adventures, and, though no lion, had great confidence in his cunning, which had brought him through a hundred scrapes and perils that would have embarrassed or destroyed your simple man of valour.

This man, whose name was Ameen Beg, had heard many stories of the ghools of the “Valley of the Angel of Death,” and thought it likely he might meet one. He prepared accordingly, by putting an egg and a lump of salt in his pocket. He had not gone far amidst the rocks, when he heard a voice crying, “Holloa, Ameen Beg Isfahânee! you are going the wrong road, you will lose yourself; come this way. I am your friend Kerreem Beg; I know your father, old Kerbela Beg, and the street in which you were born.” Ameen knew well the power the ghools had of assuming the shape of any person they choose; and he also knew their skill as genealogists, and their knowledge of towns as well as families; he had therefore little doubt this was one of those creatures alluring him to destruction. He, however, determined to encounter him, and trust to his art for his escape.

“Stop, my friend, till I come near you,” was his reply. When Ameen came close to the ghool, he said, “You are not my friend Kerreem; you are a lying demon, but you are just the being I desired to meet. I have tried my strength against all the men and all the beasts which exist in the natural world, and I can find nothing that is a match for me. I came therefore to this valley in the hope of encountering a ghool, that I might prove my prowess upon him.”

The ghool, astonished at being addressed in this manner, looked keenly at him, and said, “Son of Adam, you do not appear so strong.” “Appearances are deceitful,” replied Ameen, “but I will give you a proof of my strength. There,” said he, picking up a stone from a rivulet, “this contains a fluid; try if you can so squeeze it that it will flow out.” The ghool took the stone, but, after a short attempt, returned it, saying, “The thing is impossible.” “Quite easy,” said the Isfahânee, taking the stone and placing it in the hand in which he had before put the egg. “Look there!” And the astonished ghool, while he heard what he took for the breaking of the stone, saw the liquid run from between Ameen’s fingers, and this apparently without any effort.

Ameen, aided by the darkness, placed the stone upon the ground while he picked up another of a darker hue. “This,” said he, “I can see contains salt, as you will find if you can crumble it between your fingers; “but the ghool, looking at it, confessed he had neither knowledge to discover its qualities nor strength to break it. “Give it me,” said his companion impatiently; and, having put it into the same hand with the piece of salt, he instantly gave the latter all crushed to the ghool, who, seeing it reduced to powder, tasted it, and remained in stupid astonishment at the skill and strength of this wonderful man. Neither was he without alarm lest his strength should be exerted against himself, and he saw no safety in resorting to the shape of a beast, for Ameen had warned him that if he commenced any such unfair dealing, he would instantly slay him; for ghools, though long-lived, are not immortal.

Under such circumstances he thought his best plan was to conciliate the friendship of his new companion till he found an opportunity of destroying him.

“Most wonderful man,” he said, “will you honour my abode with your presence? it is quite at hand there you will find every refreshment; and after a comfortable night’s rest you can resume your journey.”

“I have no objection, friend ghool, to accept your offer; but, mark me, I am, in the first place, very passionate, and must not be provoked by any expressions which are in the least disrespectful; and, in the second, I am full of penetration, and can see through your designs as clearly as I saw into that hard stone in which I discovered salt. So take care you entertain none that are wicked, or you shall suffer.”

The ghool declared that the ear of his guest should be pained by no expression to which it did not befit his dignity to listen; and he swore by the head of his liege lord, the Angel of Death, that he would faithfully respect the rights of hospitality and friendship.

Thus satisfied, Ameen followed the ghool through a number of crooked paths, rugged cliffs, and deep ravines, till they came to a large cave, which was dimly lighted. “Here,” said the ghool, “I dwell, and here my friend will find all he can want for refreshment and repose.” So saying, he led him to various apartments, in which were hoarded every species of grain, and all kinds of merchandise, plundered from travellers who had been deluded to this den, and of whose fate Ameen was too well informed by the bones over which he now and then stumbled, and by the putrid smell produced by some half-consumed carcasses. “This will be sufficient for your supper, I hope,” said the ghool, taking up a large bag of rice; “a man of your prowess must have a tolerable appetite.” “True,” said Ameen, “but I ate a sheep and as much rice as you have there before I proceeded on my journey. I am, consequently, not hungry, but will take a little lest I offend your hospitality.” “I must boil it for you,” said the demon; “you do not eat grain and meat raw, as we do. Here is a kettle,” said he, taking up one lying amongst the plundered property. “I will go and get wood for a fire, while you fetch water with that,” pointing to a bag made of the hides of six oxen.

Ameen waited till he saw his host leave the cave for the wood, and then with great difficulty he dragged the enormous bag to the bank of a dark stream, which issued from the rocks at the other end of the cavern, and, after being visible for a few yards, disappeared underground.

“How shall I,” thought Ameen, “prevent my weakness being discovered? This bag I could hardly manage when empty; when full, it would require twenty strong men to carry it; what shall I do? I shall certainly be eaten up by this cannibal ghool, who is now only kept in order by the impression of my great strength.” After some minutes’ reflection the Isfahânee thought of a scheme, and began digging a small channel from the stream towards the place where his supper was preparing.

“What are you doing?” vociferated the ghool, as he advanced towards him; “I sent you for water to boil a little rice, and you have been an hour about it. Cannot you fill the bag and bring it away?” “Certainly I can,” said Ameen; “if I were content, after all your kindness, to show my gratitude merely by feats of brute strength, I could lift your stream if you had a bag large enough to hold it. But here,” said he, pointing to the channel he had begun,” here is the commencement of a work in which the mind of a man is employed to lessen the labour of his body. This canal, small as it may appear, will carry a stream to the other end of the cave, in which I will construct a dam that you can open and shut at pleasure, and thereby save yourself infinite trouble in fetching water. But pray let me alone till it is finished,” and he began to dig. “Nonsense!” said the ghool, seizing the bag and filling it; “I will carry the water myself, and I advise you to leave off your canal, as you call it, and follow me, that you may eat your supper and go to sleep; you may finish this fine work, if you like it, tomorrow morning.”

Ameen congratulated himself on this escape, and was not slow in taking the advice of his host. After having ate heartily of the supper that was prepared, he went to repose on a bed made of the richest coverlets and pillows, which were taken from one of the store-rooms of plundered goods. The ghool, whose bed was also in the cave, had no sooner laid down than he fell into a sound sleep. The anxiety of Ameen’s mind prevented him from following his example; he rose gently, and having stuffed a long pillow into the middle of his bed, to make it appear as if he was still there, he retired to a concealed place in the cavern to watch the proceedings of the ghool. The latter awoke a short time before daylight, and rising, went, without making any noise, towards Ameen’s bed, where, not observing the least stir, he was satisfied that his guest was in a deep sleep; so he took up one of his walking-sticks, which was in size like the trunk of a tree, and struck a terrible blow at what he supposed to be Ameen’s head. He smiled not to hear a groan, thinking he had deprived him of life; but to make sure of his work, he repeated the blow seven times. He then returned to rest, but had hardly settled himself to sleep, when Ameen, who had crept into the bed, raised his head above the clothes and exclaimed, “Friend ghool, what insect could it be that has disturbed me by its tapping? I counted the flap of its little wings seven times on the coverlet. These vermin are very annoying, for, though they cannot hurt a man, they disturb his rest!”

The ghool’s dismay on hearing Ameen speak at all was great, but that was increased to perfect fright when he heard him describe seven blows, any one of which would have felled an elephant, as seven flaps of an insect’s wing. There was no safety, he thought, near so wonderful a man, and he soon afterwards arose and fled from the cave, leaving the Isfahânee its sole master.

When Ameen found his host gone, he was at no loss to conjecture the cause, and immediately began to survey the treasures with which he was surrounded, and to contrive means for removing them to his home.

After examining the contents of the cave, and arming himself with a matchlock, which had belonged to some victim of the ghool, he proceeded to survey the road. He had, however, only gone a short distance when he saw the ghool returning with a large club in his hand, and accompanied by a fox.

Ameen’s knowledge of the cunning animal instantly led him to suspect that it had undeceived his enemy, but his presence of mind did not forsake him.

“Take that,” said he to the fox, aiming a ball at him from his matchlock, and shooting him through the head,—”Take that for your not performing my orders. That brute,” said he, “promised to bring me seven ghools, that I might chain them, and carry them to Isfahan, and here he has only brought you, who are already my slave.” So saying, he advanced towards the ghool; but the latter had already taken to flight, and by the aid of his club bounded so rapidly over rocks and precipices that he was soon out of sight.

Ameen having well marked the path from the cavern to the road, went to the nearest town and hired camels and mules to remove the property he had acquired. After making restitution to all who remained alive to prove their goods, he became, from what was unclaimed, a man of wealth, all of which was owing to that wit and art which ever overcome brute strength and courage.

– – – – – – –

From Oriental Folklore and Legends – Tales from Along the Silk Route.

ISBN: 978-1-907256-10-3

Paperback: http://abelapublishing.com/oriental-folklore-and-legends_p23332648.htm

eBook: http://abelapublishing.com/oriental-folklore-and-legends-ebook_p24838063.htm

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