The Tale of the Snake

Reads: 132  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

A young man sets out to make his fortune with the help of a talking snake.

Submitted: July 10, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 10, 2018



A young man was walking down a forest path, bound for the town on the other side of it; he had set his sights on this town after hearing that its king was looking to hire maids for his castle. The young man knew that maids were always women, but he was so desperate to find a job that he would put on a dress and walk around with a feather duster if that’s what it took.

He soon came to a small stream just off to side of the forest path, and since the day was hot and the pouch of water at his side had grown warm, he decided to allow himself a moment to sip the cool waters. Just as he bent to sample the stream, he heard a voice somewhere nearby.

“If I were you,” it said, “I would step back from that water right now.”

The young man pulled back his hands, which he had been about to dip into the stream, and glanced back over his shoulder. All he could find were the rocks, trees, and animals of the forest.

He called out after a moment, and received no reply; he spent a few more seconds searching his surroundings, and in spite of how close the voice had been, he found no one. It occurred to him that some sort of fairy might be trying to play a trick on him. He had heard travelers speak of sprites that would turn men who disturbed bodies of water into goldfish.

He sprang to his feet. He had taken a few steps away from the stream when he heard the voice again.

“Where are you off to?” it said. “Aren’t you going to stick around to thank me?”

The young man stopped in his tracks; the voice seemed to have come from somewhere between himself and the path. When he looked in front of him, he could see nothing; when he looked down, he could see something, but he wasn’t prepared to believe it could speak.

“What’s the matter? Never seen a talking snake?” It lay coiled up on a large rock not more than three yards from the young man; he had seen it slithering around earlier, but hadn’t thought anything of it.

The young man confessed that he had never seen a talking snake, and so as to get on its good side—there was no telling what powers a talking serpent might possess—the young man thanked it for warning him not to drink from the stream. Half out of curiosity and half out of a desire to make friendly conversation, the young man asked what would have happened if the snake hadn’t saved him.

“Have you ever heard of essence of Edenfruit? Alchemists call it liquid death, and earlier this afternoon, I found out why. I was out catching mice for lunch, a mile or so upstream of here, and I saw a horse pulling a raft full of it to the other side. The men guiding the horse didn’t watch where they were going, and the horse ended up dragging the raft into a rock. It got jostled a little, and some of the extract fell into the stream. As soon as that happened, the two men and their horse sank into the stream and floated away with a bevy of dead fish. They’re probably miles away from here by now. And even though the stream has most likely washed away some of the poison, I’ll bet there’s still plenty of it in there. It just wouldn’t kill you as quickly.”

The young man thanked the snake again, this time with feeling, and asked the snake how he could repay it.

“I’m not one to ask for favors; I’d rather give than receive. But there is one thing. . . .” The snake was silent for a moment. “I know it’s a lot to ask of you, but would you take me along with you? I don’t like this forest too much; some of the animals here think of me as dinner. And, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, you look like you could use some help getting along in life.” The snake was looking at the young man's tattered clothing.

The moment he heard these words, an idea formed in the young man’s head. He told the snake yes, scooped it up and put it in his pocket, and when the two of them set off, the young man was so excited that he no longer felt thirsty. He was thinking of all the ways a talking snake could help him earn money, and he felt certain he would never have to find work again.

This was fortunate, because a great deal in his life hinged on money. Not only did he need to provide for himself, like anyone else, but his father had died two years ago, and since the rest of his family was either too young to get a job, or in the case of his mother, suffering from an illness that left her unable to get out of bed, he himself was the household’s only source of income.

And so it was with a feeling like waking up from a nightmare and realizing it wasn’t real that the young man told the snake of his plans and they set to work bringing them about. As soon as they got to the town, the young man went to the town square, set the snake on the edge of the water fountain there, and had it recite the few poems he had had the time to teach it. The snake recited these poems over and over again for the rest of the day while the young man held out a tattered hat to collect money. This drew appreciable attention but nothing like the crowds the young man had hoped for; many of the people passing through seemed to think it came down to simple ventriloquism, and some of them ignored the act altogether.

When the sun set and everyone began to turn in for the night, the young man and the snake still waited at the fountain, trying to squeeze every penny out of the day. They had collected so little that the young man wondered if they would be able to afford a room at the inn. It was only when people began to shout at them to quiet down and a guard threatened to lock them up that they finally gave up for the night. By then, their audience only consisted of one person, a strange woman who kept muttering something under her breath; no one else showed the slightest inclination to stop and listen.

The young man, feeling let down but hopeful that they would earn more money tomorrow, set off for the inn. But as he neared his destination, the snake stopped him.

“There’s a better use for that money,” it said. “Come along, let’s find a candle to burn.” The young man felt certain that after buying a candle they would be able to afford a room—he could see the price for a room listed on the sign ahead of them, and knew a candle didn’t cost much—but even so, they had very little money, and he felt it would be best to save every penny for the days ahead.

Nevertheless, the snake insisted that they go to the shop. “Just trust me,” it said. “I wouldn’t mislead you when I’m as dependent on you as you are on me.”

So the young man threw some coins on the counter, and walked out of the shop with a candle in one hand and a match in the other.

“All right,” said the snake, when they were halfway to the inn, “let’s stop here beside this bench. Now I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. Take out those coins of yours, line them up on my tail, and melt them into my scales with that candle.”

The young man couldn’t believe his ears. He had spent so long shouting at the townspeople in an effort to draw their attention that his throat had started to get sore, and he hadn’t sat down to rest his legs during that whole time. His work had earned him little money, it was true, but it was still something, and he didn’t feel like turning it into a useless snakeskin.

“I’m not doing this for selfish reasons. I’m doing this because it will make me pretty, and the prettier I am, the more attention I’ll draw, and the more attention I draw, the more money we’ll get.”

Though it was a gamble, the young man decided to give the snake a chance; he lit the candle and melted the golden coins, one by one, into the snake’s scales. When he had finished and the snake lay glittering in the moonlight, his eyes hurt from staring at the molten gold for so long, and his thumb throbbed with a burn. He looked at the distant inn and wondered if he wouldn’t have been wiser to get some rest there; he was going to need some energy for the coming day, and he couldn’t expect to feel refreshed after lying in the street. But he had made his choice, and now he would have to stick with it.

As he lay under the bench, drifting off to sleep, he counted the specks of gold on the snake’s body. The snake looked rather pretty, the young man thought, and when he fell asleep, he began to think he had made the right choice.

Early next morning, the young man and the snake set to work. Almost as soon as they got to the fountain, they began to draw glances, and before long, they were surrounded by a crowd as interested in the snake’s ability to speak as they were in its glittering scales. Though many people left that crowd to go about their business, it was always replenished by newcomers, so that by the end of the day, the young man and the snake had earned several times the money they had earned the day before. An actress had even stopped and suggested that they might make an appearance at the town theatre.

With their work done for the day, the young man set off for the post office, feeling happier than he had felt in a long time. He was going to send back some of the money he had earned to his starving family. The snake, however, stopped him.

“Why don’t you take out that candle?” it said, and an hour later, every coin the young man had earned lay glittering on its back, so it looked like it had been carved out of gold.

The young man didn’t look nearly as good; he had grown slightly pale, and dark circles had developed under his eyes. He didn’t feel well, either; his stomach had been empty for almost two days, and sleeping under a bench hadn’t refreshed him. All he could think of, for awhile, was how nice it would be to head to the inn, where he would find a warm dinner and a cozy bed.

He found it hard to sleep, that night; every time he closed his eyes, he wanted to open them back up and check that the snake hadn’t gone missing. The snake was worth more money than he had ever owned at one time, and without the snake, he didn’t think he could earn that much again.

Their third day in the town brought them more success than ever; they not only earned enough money to spend the next several weeks taking board at the inn, but they had earned enough money besides to keep the young man’s family fed for a month. On top of that, the town theater had sent them word through the actress who had watched their show yesterday that they were welcome to perform there tomorrow.

“About the money we earned today. . . .” began the snake, and the young man took out the candle and struck the match before the serpent had even finished: two days of success and another one in the works had made him confident enough to spend another night on the street, with his pockets bereft of gold.

The young man admired his handiwork, for awhile--the snake had grown to three times its original length—before he decided to make way back to the bench where he would sleep again. When he stood up, however, he grew faint and broke into a sweat; little lights popped in front of his eyes, and he thought he would pass out before he got back to the bench. He eventually made it, though; and yet, even though he had grown used to sleeping on the pavement and needed rest more than ever, he barely slept that night. He kept hearing distant noises such as the barking of dogs and the slamming of doors, and every time he heard these things, he would give a little start, half certain that a thief had come to steal the snake.

The theatre could barely hold the masses that poured in--even the king and his court had shown up—and when the sun went down, the young man and the snake had earned so much gold that they had to get a room at the inn in which to pile it up. The young man, whose eyes had turned yellow with candlelit gold, grabbed a match before the snake had the chance to say anything, and began melting the coins, one by one, into the snake’s pelt. By the time he finished, he felt so tired that he grew dizzy upon standing, and blacked out. When he woke up, he found himself on the floor of the inn, with the morning light pouring in and the snake, now as large as a horse and several times longer, coiled up on the bed.

The young man was in the middle of getting ready for another day of work when there came a knocking at his door. He rushed over and opened it, and there he found a woman clad in heavy armor. She gave him a letter explaining that the king wanted to see him and the snake at his castle as soon as possible, and she herself would escort them. The young man wiped off his shaving cream, called the snake over, and they joined the woman to a walk through the town. Before long, the young man saw the castle rising up before them. He asked the woman why the king wanted to seem him and the snake, but she refused to say anything; she had been silent the whole time.

Soon they stood before the king’s throne. The young man feared he would be punished, though he didn’t know what he had done wrong, but the king told them he had been so pleased by their services to the arts, and he had found their show at the theatre so delightful, that they had not only earned a room in his castle but a generous reward.

The king showed them their room, and after that, escorted them to the chamber in which their reward had been put; when the door came open, they found themselves staring at piles of gold mixed with fat glittering rubies. When the king left them to enjoy the treasure they had earned, the young man burst into sobs of joy; with this much money, he could easily feed himself and his family for several years to come.

“You know the routine by now,” said the snake as it slithered in and out of the mounds of treasure, like a golden earthworm. “Take out the candle, and we’ll get started.”

The young man had never dreamed of seeing so many riches in one place, and the idea of taking them all and pouring them into one thing filled him with fear. He would be stripping himself down to nothing, as he done for the previous few days, but this time more hinged on his choice than ever: if the snake were to vanish somehow or lose its appeal to the masses, the young man would go right back to where he had been for the last two years, and it wouldn’t be a simple matter of starting over again, either; the young man had given this his all—those riches had been earned with his hollow stomach, his burnt fingers, and months of desperate searching. He didn’t think he could do it again; it would require more luck and energy than he had left.

But when he thought of what he could accomplish with this one extra sacrifice—riches beyond imagining—he couldn’t help himself; he lit the candle at once and began the long task of turning the snake into an idol worthy of his latest dream. He worked all through the day, melting down the gold, and when night fell and he was out of gold, he began melting the rubies; they dripped onto the snake like drops of blood, and the young man had burned his fingers so many times that he wondered if he was actually bleeding: he could no longer see well enough to tell; he thought it must be eyestrain from squinting so hard at the heaps of riches.

Later that night, someone knocked on the treasure room door. “Anyone in there?” said a woman dressed as a knight.

Eventually she opened the door, and the snake, which looked less like a serpent and more like a bejeweled dragon, squeezed itself out the door; the only thing left behind it was the bones of the man who had fattened it up.

“Good job, Tessie, good job,” said the woman as she patted the snake’s head. And with the serpent slithering along beside her, she walked away in boots made of golden snake skin. When she reached the castle gate, the guards there questioned them.

“We’re just getting some fresh air,” said the woman. “We’ll be back in a little while.”

The guards told them to go ahead, addressing themselves to the snake; they had seen the woman’s lips move, but thought she was muttering something under her breath; she had gotten rather good at throwing her voice.

As they left the town, the woman gazed at the serpent with wondering eyes. “What I’ll make from this haul,” she whispered, “I can only dream.”

As soon as she said this, the snake stopped.

“What is it, Tessie?” she said. “Find something to eat?” The woman waited for the snake to strike its prey, and as she did so, a warm and tender look came over her.

“Hiss,” said Tessie, and its fangs sank into the woman with a resounding crunch.

© Copyright 2018 M. Leon Radecki. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments: