NOVEL EXTRACT: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

THE MAN WHO SPOKE SNAKISH (Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu)
(c) Jüri J Dubov
Translated by Christopher Moseley


Actually I was born in the village, not in the forest. It was my father who decided to move to the village. Everybody was moving, well, almost everybody, and my parents were among the last. That was probably on my mother’s account, because she didn’t like village life, she wasn’t interested in farming and she never ate bread.

 “It was slops,” she used to say to me. “You know, Leemet, I don’t believe anybody actually likes it. This bread-eating is really just showing off. They want to appear terribly fine and live like foreigners. Now a nice fresh haunch of deer is quite another thing. Now come on and eat, dear child! Who did I roast these joints for?”

 My father was obviously of a different opinion. He wanted to be a modern person, and a modern person should live in a village, under the open sky and the sun, not in a murky forest. He should grow rye, work all summer like some filthy ant, so that in autumn he could look important and gobble bread and be like the foreigners. A modern person was supposed to have a scythe at home, so that in autumn he could stoop down and cut the grain on the ground; he had to have a quern on which to grind the grains, huffing and puffing. Uncle Vootele told me how my father – when he was still living in the forest – would just about explode with irritation and envy when he thought about the interesting life the villagers were leading and the impressive tools they had.

 “We must hurry up and move to the village!” he had shouted. “Life is passing us by! These days all normal people live under the open sky, not in the bushes! I want to sow and reap too, as they do everywhere in the developed world! Why should I be any worse? I don’t want to live like a beggar! Just look at the iron-men and the monks – you can see straight away that they’re a hundred years ahead of us! We must make every effort to catch up with them!”

And so he did take my mother to live in the village; they built themselves a little cottage and my father learned to sow and reap and got himself a scythe and a quern. He started going to church and learning German, so he could understand the speech of the iron-men and learn even better and more fashionable tricks from them. He ate bread and, smacking his lips, praised its goodness, and as he learned to make proper barley-gruel, there was no end to his enthusiasm and pride.

 “It tasted like vomit,” my mother confessed to me, but my father ate barley-gruel three times a day, screwing up his face a bit, while claiming that it was a particularly dainty dish, which you had to know how to eat. “Not like our hunks of meat, which any fool can gobble, but a proper European food for people with finer tastes!” he would say. “Not too rich, not too fatty, but sort of lean and light. But nourishing! A food for kings!”       

 When I was born, my father advised that I should be fed only on barley-gruel, because his child “has to be better”. And he got me a little scythe, so that as soon as my legs could carry me I would go stooping in the fields with him. “Of course a scythe is a precious thing, and you might think there’s no sense in putting it into a tiny tot’s hands, but I don’t agree with that attitude. Our child ought to get used to modern tools from the start,” he declared proudly. “In the future we won’t get by without a scythe, so let him learn the great art of reaping rye straight away!”

 All this was related to me by Uncle Vootele. I don’t remember my father. And my mother didn’t like talking about him; she would always become perplexed and change the subject. She must have blamed herself to the end for my father’s death, and I suppose she was guilty. My mother was bored in the village; she didn’t care for work in the fields, and while my father was striding out to go sowing, my mother was wandering around the old familiar forests, and she got acquainted with a bear. What happened next seems to be quite clear, it’s such a familiar story. Few women can resist a bear, they’re so big, soft, helpless and furry. And besides that, they are born seducers, and moreover terribly attracted to human females, so they wouldn’t let slip an opportunity to make their way up to a woman and growl in her ear. In the old days, when most of our people still lived in the forest, there were endless cases of bears becoming women’s lovers, until finally the man would come upon the couple and send the brown beast packing.

 The bear started visiting us, always when my father was toiling in the field. He was a very friendly animal – my sister Salme, who is five years older than me, remembers him and has told me that the bear always brought her honey. Like all bears at that time, this bear knew how to talk a little, since bears are the cleverest of animals, of course excepting snakes, the brothers of humans. True, bears couldn’t say much, and their conversation wasn’t very smart – but how smart do you have to be to talk to your lover? At least they could chat nicely about everyday matters.

 Of course, everything’s changed now. A couple of times, when carrying water from the spring, I’ve noticed bears and shouted a few words of greeting to them. They’ve stared at me with stupid faces and taken off with a crackle into the bushes. That whole stratum of culture they possessed down the long centuries in their dealings with men and snakes has been dissipated in a short time, and bears have become ordinary animals. Like ourselves. Apart from me, who knows the snake-words? The world has gone downhill, and even the water from the spring tastes bitter.

 But never mind that. In those days, in my childhood, bears were still able to exchange ideas with humans. We were never friends; we considered bears too far below us for that. Ultimately we were the ones they pawed with their honey-paws and pulled at out of primitive stupidity. In their way they were the pupils of humans, as we were their superiors. And of course the lustfulness of bears, and that incomprehensible attraction that our women felt for them. That was why every man looked on them with a slight suspicion – “that fat furry bundle of love won’t get my woman…” Too often they would find bear-fur in their beds.         

 But things were even worse for my father. He didn’t find only bear-fur in the bed; he found a whole bear. In itself it mightn’t have been so bad – he should have just given the bear a good hiss and the creature, caught in the act, would have slunk off in shame to the forest But my father had started to forget the snakish words, because he didn’t need them in the village, and besides, he didn’t think much of them, believing that a scythe and a quern would serve him a whole lot better. So when he saw the bear in his own bed, he mumbled some words of German, whereupon the bear, confused by the incomprehensible words, and annoyed at being caught in flagrante, bit his head off.

Naturally he regretted it straight away, because bears are not generally bloodthirsty animals, unlike, for example, wolves, who will only serve humans under the influence of the snakish words, carrying them on their backs and allowing themselves to be milked. A wolf really is a fairly dangerous domestic animal, but since there is no tastier milk to be had from anyone in the forest, one reconciles oneself to its sullenness, especially as the snakish words render it as meek as a titmouse. But a bear is a creature with sense. The bear had killed my father in desperation, and since the murder was committed in the heat of passion, he punished himself on the spot and bit his own tool off.

 Then my mother and the castrated bear burned my father’s body, and the bear fled deep into the forest, vowing to my mother that they would never meet again. Apparently this was a suitable solution for my mother, because as I said, she felt terribly guilty and her love for the bear ended abruptly. For the rest of her life she couldn’t stand bears, would hiss as soon as she saw them, and in this way she retreated from her former life. This hatred of hers later brought much confusion on our family, and strife too, but I will speak of that later, at the right time.

 After my father’s death, my mother saw no reason to stay on in the village; she strapped me on her back, took my sister by the hand and moved back to the forest. Her brother, my uncle Vootele, was still living there, and he took us into his care, helped us to build a hut and gave us two young wolves, so we would always have fresh milk. Although she was still struck down by my father’s death, she breathed more easily, because she had never wanted to leave the forest. This was where she felt at ease, and she didn’t care a bit that she wasn’t living like the iron-men or that there wasn’t a single scythe in the house. In our mother’s home we no longer ate bread, but there were always piles of deer and goat-meat.


 I wasn’t even one year old when we moved back to the forest. So I knew nothing of the village or the life there; I grew up in the forest and it was my only home. We had a nice hut deep in the woods, where I lived with my mother and sister, and Uncle Vootele’s cave was nearby. In those days the forest was not yet bereft of people; moving around, you would be bound to meet other people; old women milking their wolves in front of their huts, or long-bearded old men, chatting coarsely away with the vipers.

 There were fewer younger people and their numbers kept decreasing, so that more and more often you could come across an abandoned dwelling. Those huts were vanishing into the undergrowth, ownerless wolves were running around, and the older people said that once you’ve let it go, it’s not really a life for anyone any more. They were especially distressed that children were not being born any more, which was quite natural – who was there to bear them when all the young people were moving to the village? I too went to look at the village, peering from the edge of the forest, not daring to go any closer. Everything there was so different, and a lot smarter too, I thought. There was plenty of sunlight and open space, the houses under the open sky seemed a lot nicer to me that than our hovel, half-buried in the spruce-trees, and in every home I could see big numbers of children scurrying around.

 This made me very jealous, for I had few playmates. My sister Salme didn’t care much for me – she was five years older, and a girl besides, she had her own things to do. Luckily there was Pärtel, and I ran around with him. And then there was Hiie, Tambet’s daughter, but again she was too small, tottering around her home on stiff legs and falling over every now and then on her bum. She was no company for me at first, and anyway I didn’t like going over to Tambet’s place – I may have been young and stupid but I did understand that Tambet couldn’t stand me. He would always snort and hiss when he saw me, and once, when Pärtel and I were coming from berry-picking and, out of the goodness of my heart, I offered a strawberry to Hiie, who was squatting on the grass, Tambet yelled from inside the house:

 “Hiie, come away from there! We don’t take anything from the village people!”

 He could never forgive my family for leaving the forest that time, and he stubbornly persisted in regarding me and Salme as villagers. At the sacred grove he always scowled at us with obvious disdain, as if he were offended that stinking village mongrels like us would push our way into such an important place. And I didn’t go to the grove willingly either, because I didn’t like the way Ülgas the wizard anointed the trees with hare’s blood. Hares were such dear creatures; I couldn’t understand how anyone could kill them, just like that, to sprinkle on the tree-roots. I was afraid of Ülgas, although in appearance he wasn’t so horrible, but rather he had a kindly, grandfatherly face, and was good to children. Sometimes he would visit us and talk about all sorts of fairies and about how children in particular should show great respect to them, and bring a sacrifice to the water-sprite before washing at the spring, and then another after emptying the water-bucket. And when you want to bathe in a river, you should bring a few sacrifices, if you don’t want the water-sprite to drown you.

 “What sacrifices should they be?” I asked, and Ülgas the wizard explained, laughing affably, that the best thing to take is a frog, cutting it alive from the head lengthwise and throwing it into the spring or river. Then the sprite is satisfied.

 “Why are those sprites so cruel?” I ventured, frightened, because torturing a frog like that seemed horrible to me. “Why do they want blood all the time?”

 “What rubbish you talk! Sprites aren’t cruel,” Ülgas admonished me. “Fairies are simply the rulers of the waters and the trees, and we should obey their orders and do their bidding; that has always been our custom.”

 Then he patted me on the cheek, telling me by all means to come back to the grove soon – “because those who don’t visit the grove will be torn apart by the dogs” – and left. But I was torn by terror and hesitation, because I just couldn’t cut a live frog in half, and I bathed very rarely and as close to the shore as possible, so I could scramble out of the water before the bloodthirsty water-sprite, without the propitiation of a frog-corpse, would leap at me on the shore. Even when I did go to the sacred grove, I always felt uncomfortable, looking around everywhere for those horrible dogs that lived there and kept watch, according to Ülgas, but all I met was the withering gaze of Tambet, who no doubt took offence that a “villager” like me was gazing around a sacred place, instead of concentrating on the conjurings of the wizard of the grove.

 Being thought of as a “villager” didn’t actually worry me, because, as I said, I liked the village. I was always pressing my mother to know why we moved away from there and whether we couldn’t go back – if not for good, then at least for a while, to see if we could. Of course my mother wouldn’t agree, and tried to explain to me how nice it was in the forest, and how tedious and hard the life of the village people was.

 “They eat bread and barley-gruel there,” she would say, evidently wanting to scare me, but though I couldn’t remember the taste of either of them, the mention of them didn’t provoke any abhorrence in me. On the contrary, those unknown foods sounded alluring; I would have liked to try them. And I told my mother so.

 ”I want bread and barley-gruel!”

 “Ah, you don’t know how horrible they are. We’ve got plenty of roast meat! Come and take some, boy! Believe me, it’s a hundred times nicer.”

 I didn’t believe her. Roast meat I ate every day, it was ordinary food, with nothing mysterious about it.

 “I want bread and barley-gruel!” I insisted.

 “Leemet, stop talking nonsense now! You don’t even know what you’re saying. You don’t need any bread. You just think you want it, but actually you’d spit it straight out. Bread is as dry as moss, it gets stuck in your mouth. Look, I’ve got owls’ eggs here!”  

 Owls’ eggs were my favourite, and at the sight of them I stopped whining and set about sucking the eggs empty. Salme came into the room, saw me and screamed that our mother was spoiling me – she wanted to drink owls’ eggs too!

 “But of course, Salme,” agreed my mother. “I’ve put aside eggs for you. You each get just as many.”

 Then Salme grabbed her own eggs, sat down next to me and we competed with each other. And I no longer thought of bread or barley-gruel.



Quite naturally, however, just a few owls’ eggs couldn’t kill my curiosity for long, and the very next day I was roaming on the edge of the forest, looking greedily towards the village. My friend Pärtel was with me, and it was he who finally said: “Why are we watching from so far away? Let’s sneak a bit closer.”

The suggestion seemed extremely dangerous; the very thought of it made my heart race. Nor did Pärtel look all that brave; he looked at me with an expression that expected me to shake my head and refuse; his words had indicated his dread. I didn’t shake my head; I just said: “Let’s go then.”

As I said it, I had the feeling that I was expected to jump into some dark forest lake. We went a couple of steps and stopped, hesitating; I looked at Pärtel and saw that my friend’s face was as white as a sheet.

“Shall we go on?” he asked.

“I guess so.”

So we did. It was horrible. The first house was already quite close, but luckily no-one appeared. Pärtel and I hadn’t agreed how far we would go. As far as the house? And then – should we take a look in the doorway? We wouldn’t really dare to. Tears overcame me; I would have liked to run headlong back into the forest, but since my friend was walking beside me, it wouldn’t do to look so timid. Pärtel must have been thinking the same thing, because I heard him sobbing now and then. And yet, as if bewitched, we kept inching forward, step by step.

Then a girl came out of the house, about our age. We came to a stop. If some adult had appeared before us, we probably would have made off back to the forest with a loud cry, but there was no need to flee because of a girl of our own age. She didn’t seem very dangerous, even if she was a village child. Nevertheless we were very cautious, staring at her and not going any closer.

The girl looked back at us. She didn’t seem to feel any fear.

“Did you come from the forest?” she asked.

We nodded.

“Have you come to live in the village?”

“No,” replied Pärtel, and I saw my chance to do a bit of bragging, informing her that I had already lived in the village, but moved away.

“Why did you go back to the forest?” The girl was amazed. “Nobody goes back to the forest, they all come from the forest to the village. They’re fools that live in the forest.”

“You’re a fool yourself,” I said.

“No I’m not, you are. Everyone says only fools live in the forest. Look what you’re wearing! Skins! Awful! Like an animal.”

We compared our own clothing with the village girl’s, and we had to admit that the girl was right; our wolf- and goat-skins really were a lot uglier than hers, and hung off us like bags. The girl, on the other hand, was wearing a long, slim shirt, which was nothing like an animal-skin; it was thin, light and moved in the wind.

“What kind of skin is that?” asked Pärtel.      

“It isn’t skin, it’s cloth,” replied the girl. “It’s woven.”

That word meant nothing to us. The girl burst out laughing.

“You don’t know what weaving is?” she shrieked. “Have you even seen a loom? A spinning wheel? Come inside, I’ll show you.”

This invitation was both frightening and alluring. Pärtel and I looked at each other, and we found that we ought to take the risk. These things with strange names ought to be seen. And whatever that girl might do to us, there were two of us after all. That is, unless she had allies inside…

“Who else is in there?” I asked.

“No-one else. I’m alone at home, the others are all making hay.”

That too was an incomprehensible thing, but we didn’t want to appear too stupid, so we nodded as if we understood what “making hay” meant. Our hearts were in our throats as we went inside.

It was an amazing experience. All those strange contraptions that filled the room were a feast for the eyes. We stood as if thunderstruck, and we didn’t dare sit down or move. The girl, on the other hand, felt right at home and was delighted to show off in front of us.

“Well, there’s a spinning wheel for you!” she said, patting one of the queerest objects I’ve ever seen in my life. “You spin yarn on it. I can do it already; want me to show you?”

We mumbled something. The girl sat down at the spinning wheel and immediately a strange gadget started turning and whirring. Pärtel sighed with excitement.

“Mighty!” he muttered.

“You like it?” the girl inquired proudly “Okay, I can’t do any more spinning just now.” She got up. “What else can I show you? Look, this is a bread-shovel.”

The bread-shovel, too, made a deep impression on us.  

“But what’s that?” I asked, pointing to a cross-shape hanging on the wall, to which was attached a human figure.

“That is Jesus Christ, our god,” someone answered. It wasn’t the girl, it was a man’s voice. Pärtel and I were as startled as mice and wanted to rush out the door, but our way was barred.

“Don’t run away!” said the voice. “No need to tremble like that. You’re from the forest, aren’t you? Calm down, now, boys, nobody means you any harm.”

“This is my father,” said the girl. “What’s wrong with you, why are you afraid?”

Timidly we eyed the man who had stepped into the room. He was tall, and looked very grand with his golden hair and beard. To our eyes he was also enviably well-dressed, wearing the same sort of light-coloured shirt as his daughter, the same furry breeches, and around his neck the same figure on a cross that I had seen on the wall.

“Tell me, are there still many people living in the forest?” he asked. “Please do tell your parents to give up their benighted ways! All the sensible people are moving now from the forest to the village. In this day and age it’s silly to go on living in some dark thicket, doing without all the benefits of modern science. It’s pathetic to think of those poor people who still carry on a miserable existence in caves, while other people are living in castles and palaces! Why do our folk have to be the last? We want to taste the same pleasures that other folk have! Tell that to your fathers and mothers. If they won’t think of themselves, then they ought to show some pity for their children. What will become of you if you don’t learn to talk German and serve Jesus?”

We couldn’t utter a word in response, but strange words like “castles” and “palaces” made our hearts tremble. They must surely be finer things than spinning-wheels and bread-shovels. We would have liked to see them! We really should talk them at home into letting us spend at least some time in the village, just to look at all these marvels.    

“What are your names?” asked the man.

We mumbled our names. The man patted us on the shoulders.

“Pärtel and Leemet – those are heathen names. When you come to live in the village, you’ll be christened, and you’ll get names from the Bible. For instance, my name used to be Vambola, but for many years now I’ve had the name Johannes. And my daughter’s name is Magdaleena. Isn’t that beautiful? Names from the Bible are all beautiful. The whole world uses them, the fine boys and pretty girls from all the great peoples. Us too – the Estonians. The wise man does as other wise men do, and doesn’t just run around berserk like some piglet let out of a pen.”

Johannes patted us on the shoulder once more and led us into the yard.

“Now go home and talk to your parents. And come back soon. All Estonians have to come out of the dark forest, into the sun and the open wind, because those winds carry the wisdom of distant lands to us. I’m an elder of this village, I’ll be expecting you. And Magdaleena will be expecting you too; it would be nice to play with you and go to church on Sunday to pray to God. Till we meet again, farewell, boys! May God protect you!”

 Obviously something was troubling Pärtel; he opened his mouth a few times, but didn’t dare utter a sound. Finally, when we really did turn to leave, he couldn’t contain his question any longer:

 “Uncle, what is that long stick in your hand? And all those spikes in it!”

 “It’s a rake!” replied Johannes with a smile. “When you come to live in the village, you can have one of these!”

Pärtel’s face broke into a smile of joy. We ran into the forest.

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