This is a retelling of an Austrian folktale.
The Story of How I Came to Retell this Story
At the start of the year I wrote a post about the protests in Romania against corruption. Afterwards I felt the need to better inform myself about what’s going on in other EU countries. I had this notion of going through all the member states in alphabetical order and posting bits and pieces about them.
I’ve been feeling pretty lousy this year and my drive to realise my little idea ran out of steam fairly fast. But I did start off looking up things about Austria. I was going to do my take on a couple of recipes from each country, something sweet, something savoury, what the top attractions are, briefly outline how the political system works there, find out what’s happening and write a little bit about it.
I didn’t do that. Obviously. But when I was searching through things online I came across this website with a list of Austrian Fairy Tales and Legends. I was immediately drawn to the title The Grass Snake of the House so I read it. I was struck by how different it was from the fairytales I grew up with.
It was so lovely that I forgot about focusing on current affairs and decided instead to retell the bittersweet tale here on twimii.
The original is so sweet and sad. I decided to pad it out a bit and give it a happier ending – we can choose happier endings, can’t we?
I didn’t post it at the time because I had already realised that I wasn’t going to write about each of the member states. By itself the story just seemed too random. Yeah I know. How could anything be too random for twimii?
But here I am posting it now. So if you’re in the mood for a little childlike tale, grab a cuppa and something sweet, and take a read of this.
In case you’re wondering the images I used are all Pixabay images – most of which I’ve edited a bit.
The Grass Snake of the House
When the widow remarried, she and her daughter moved to a big house in the country. The little girl didn’t want to leave the city. All the friends and family she knew, other than her mother, were there and she didn’t want to leave them. Her grandmother scolded the little girl for being so foolish and praised the mother for capturing the heart of such a good man.
Just as the girl feared there weren’t any children her age near her new home, and her mother was too busy rearranging the house to suit their needs to have much time for her. The only creatures that did have the time were the birds in the trees and the mice in the fields, but they were wary of humans and so they fled when she approached.
All in all it was a lonely time for the child. But it wasn’t all bad. She had to admit that her new home was very beautiful, and a certain sense of wonder crept into her heart as she watched the countryside around her change, in small ways, constantly. She missed the community she had known but she began to see that she was part of something even bigger, and everything was in motion, alive.
Also there were many other little joys to be found in her new life. Her stepfather, a very kind but very busy man, had a very sweet tooth. Her mother would make a tray of Buchteln for him every morning which all the family and their farmhands would enjoy. They were delicious!
But what the girl really loved was when there was one left over from the day before. It would have turned a little hard and nobody would want to eat it. But the mother, not being the wasteful sort, would give it to her little girl in a bowl of warmed milk. The girl liked this even better than eating them freshly baked. In fact she would often skip eating the fresh ones to ensure she would have one to enjoy the next afternoon.
If it wasn’t raining, and usually it wasn’t, she would take her bowl and spoon out to the backyard, sit on a tree stump surrounded with colourful little wildflowers, and enjoy her lovely little feast.
One fine summer’s day as she sat enjoying the warm sweet milky bread, a grass snake slid across yard. The little girl let out a little gasp, not out of fear but excitement. She had never seen a real snake before. The snake froze as she made noise. Like the other wild creatures he had learned to fear humans. The girl and the snake watched each other a moment, each waiting to see what the other would do. The little girl then broke off a little bit of her bread, dipped it in the milk and then gently threw it towards the grass snake.
The snake rose up a little and swayed from side to side unsure if this was the start of some sort of attack. The girl watched it hopefully, pointing at the piece of bread she’d thrown. Nervously the snake snatched the piece of bread and quickly slithered away.
The girl watched him leave, disappointed, but returned to enjoying her treat.
The next day it rained so the little girl ate her treat in the kitchen. She sat beside the window as she did so, hoping to see the snake return. He didn’t. Maybe he didn’t like the rain either.
The following day it was another fine summer’s day. The girl had made sure there was a sweet roll leftover for her to enjoy. As she sat on the tree stump breaking off some bread with a little of the apricot jam filling and mashing it into the milk with her spoon, she wondered if the snake might reappear. Sure enough, after a little time, the little grass snake poked his head out of the bushes on the far side of the yard.
The girl broke off a piece of her treat, dipped it in the milk, and held it up in the air for him to see. The snake hesitated a moment, then slid over to spot where she had thrown the treat a couple of days ago. Still she didn’t throw the treat but held it up and motioned with her other hand to come closer. Reluctantly the grass snake slid a couple of feet closer. He stopped. That was as far as he would go today. The girl smiled and threw him the treat. Quickly he snatched it up and slithered away.
This went on for few more days, and with each passing day the little grass snake gained more and more trust in the girl, coming closer each time until he felt safe enough to take the treat from her hand.
A magpie who had been watching these little scenes with a mixture of confusion, curiosity, consternation and above all hunger couldn’t keep silent any longer. After all this was not the natural order of things. Humans do not go about sharing their food with snakes! And what would happen if the magpie decided to swoop down and snatch up the very small, and probably quite tasty, little grass snake? This was something which the bird had pondered on multiple occasions over the last few days. What would the human do then? No, this was not the right order of things at all at all.
So when the grass snake finally had the courage to take the treat from the girl’s hand the magpie screeched loudly at the terrible impropriety of it all.
The grass snake, frightened by the bird’s cry, slid closer to the girl. The girl looked up at the bird and threw a piece of her sweet roll over to the opposite side of the yard. The bird hesitated a moment slightly annoyed that she had entirely missed the point of his cry. But then he did want to see what was so great about this bread so…
A field mouse had also been watching these strange encounters from the safety of the bushes. On seeing the magpie pecking at the piece of stale Buchteln, she decided to venture out from the bushes and see if the girl might throw something her way. She knew if the magpie preferred the bread to the eating the snake, the snake surely would also prefer it to eating her.
And she was correct. Once the little girl saw the little field mouse she threw a couple of crumbs her way.
The girl bent down to the snake who was hiding under her skirt. “Alright?”
The snake carefully slid out into plain sight, watching the magpie all the time. The magpie ignored him and instead pecked away at his delicious treat. The snake turned back towards the little girl and nodded.
She smiled and shared the rest of snack with him in happy silence. When there was no more Buchteln to share the girl, as usual, drank the remaining milk from the bowl, placed the spoon back inside it and returned inside the house. Before closing the door she turned and waved bye to the animals.
The snake, the magpie and the mouse looked at each other, frozen for a moment. They each slowly took a couple of steps back before turning and quickly going their separate ways.
From then on the girl made sure there was always sweet roll leftover for her treat in the afternoon, which she would share with the little grass snake, leaving a little corner for the magpie and a few crumbs for the mouse. These meetings had become her favourite part of the day and she loved the little grass snake for making it possible.
And the grass snake loved their encounters too, not least because the Buchteln was really really tasty. He wanted to give the little girl something as a token of his gratitude. He started searching all the surrounding land for colourful cloths and shiny things to give her.
Humans love colourful cloths and shiny things. They love to cover their skin in colourful cloths and put shiny things on their fingers, arms, around their neck, on their head, anywhere really. He couldn’t understand it but he knew it was so.
Then one day he found the perfect gift. As he slithered through the grass around the large trees by the pond, he spotted something glinting in the sunshine. It was a very very shiny metal band with the most sparkly stones the snake had ever seen. He couldn’t think of a more perfect gift for a human. He slid through the piece of jewellery, catching part of it in his mouth and carried it away.
That day when he went to meet the girl he made sure to get there early so he could place his present on the tree stump so it and he would be the first thing she would see when she came out for their treat. And she did see it. Right before the magpie swooped down and grabbed it to adorn its nest.
The snake was crestfallen but the little girl laughed. She seemed to understand that the snake had brought it to her. She so happy to be given a gift but all she said was “I prefer flowers”. From that day onwards the snake brought her a different flower which she would place in a bowl her room. To the girl they always seemed as fresh as when they were picked.
The summer couldn’t last and the change of season brought a chill to their afternoons. It was getting harder and harder for the snake to find flowers, and he needed to find some nice cave for the winter. He must be moving on. But how could he let the little girl know he had to leave. She didn’t seem to even feel the cold.
One day as they were sharing their treat a breeze ran through the yard so bitter that the snake thought it might be frozen on the spot. The snake hissed sharply with the pain of it.
“Come sit in my lap. I’ll cover you with my skirt and you’ll be snug then.” The girl beckoned the snake towards her.
The snake slowly slithered towards her.
Now the girl’s mother happened to be in the kitchen at the moment. When she heard the snake’s sharp hissing she looked out the window to see what was happening.
The mother knew nothing of the friendship between her child and the grass snake. Her heart leapt in terror as she watched the snake creep up the tree stump and into the little girl’s lap. She ran out to the yard, grabbed hold of the snake and beat it against the stone floor till it lay dead.
The girl was so shocked she turned deathly pale and all her words left her. The mother scolded the child for being outside on so cold an afternoon. The child remained silent and as white as a ghost. The mother, seeing the child’s state, quickly carried her off to her room, putting her in bed under the covers.
The mouse and the magpie were as shocked as the child. They had become so used to their pleasant afternoon treats, they had forgotten the old order of things.They looked at each other. Each could see their sorrow reflected in the other. Why did that woman end their pleasant scenes? Why would any creature do such a thing?
The magpie and the mouse could see that the girl was unable to raise her voice in protest. They knew what they must do.
The mouse ran back through the bushes, back into the fields and told all the mice there what she had just seen. And all there heard the tale even the worms, even the grass, and even the pebbles and stones.
The magpie flew away to the woods. There he told all the birds and all who would listen, even the bees and even the trees, all that he had seen. And his words went farther still, carried away by the sky through which he flew.
For all the countryside had been charmed by tales of how on sunny afternoons a little girl, a little grass snake, a magpie and a field mouse would share some sweet bread and warm milk. And even though most had never seen the little snake they all mourned his passing.
That evening as the mother cooked dinner her mind kept rerunning the events of that afternoon. She told herself it was very lucky she had heard the snake because something truly awful could have happened if she hadn’t. Her thoughts were so consumed by what could have been that she couldn’t concentrate on what she was actually doing.
The kitchen was already half-filled with smoke before she realised she had burnt the dinner. She had to open all the windows downstairs to clear the air.
When her husband returned home he asked her, as he always did, how the day had been. She told him that a snake had attacked her little girl, and the child now lay in bed, pale and deathly cold. She told him that had she not been there to deal with the snake quickly their happy home could have been destroyed.
On hearing this all the birds outside shrieked “LIES! LIES! LIES!”
But all the man and woman heard was birds squawking, so they closed all the windows to shut out the noise.
After dinner the stepfather asked his wife to show him where the attack had happened. She brought him out to the tree stump and told him how the creature had slithered up tree stump and with vicious intent curled around her little girl.
The air had become very still that evening and yet the rustling of the long grass in the nearby meadows could be heard whispering “Lies, lies, lies!” Their whispers grew and grew till they rose up to the heavens and filled all the air.
But all the woman said was “Oh the wind is rising. There will be a storm. Let’s get indoors.”
Once inside the mother said she would check on her child, and her husband went with her to see if a doctor was needed.
The girl, as pale as before, was sitting up in bed. She did not greet them when they entered the room. She did not seem aware they were there. In her hands she held the bowl of flowers the snake had given her and her gaze was fixed upon these.
The mother who had never noticed the flowers before asked “Child what do you want with that bowl of withered weeds?”
The little girl did not reply.
“She does not look at all well.” said the stepfather “I will fetch the doctor.”
“Yes that snake did her grave ill indeed.” said the mother as she gently removed the bowl of withered wildflowers from her child’s hands.
As she placed the bowl on the desk by the window, a button on her sleeve caught the curtain pulling it back. A branch of a nearby tree slammed against the window and its twigs and leaves twisted to read “LIES!”.
The noise startled the woman and she jumped back in fright. She did not see the tree outside. All she saw in the window was her reflection. Her reflection showed a face almost as pale and drawn as the child’s, with eyes sunken and hollow.
Their expression troubled the woman. They said “We know that’s not true”.
Confused, the woman sat down on the bed and turned to her child. “Daughter, why did you not run away from that snake?”.
The little girl looked up at her mother startled, as if she had only just become aware of her presence.
“Why did you not run away?”
The daughter’s eyes filled with sorrow as she said “He was my friend.”
The woman had never heard anything so ridiculous. She set about calmly explaining that people do not make friends with snakes. There is a certain order which must be respected. The little girl’s gaze returned to her hands, even though they now held nothing. The child seemed to retreat into her own world again.
The woman didn’t know what to do. On the one hand she wanted to make her daughter happy once again. On the other she didn’t want her to think it was alright to consider the beasts of the fields her friends. How could the girl have ever got such notions? How could she not know that there was a certain order to things, and everyone had their particular place in that order?
The woman couldn’t understand how all this had come to pass. Distractedly she went to the window to draw the curtains once again. At that moment the magpie flew on to the windowsill. It tapped its beak gently against the glass looking at the little girl.
The mother looked at it, perplexed. It was almost as if the creature wanted to know how the child was. The woman dismissed these thoughts and started to close the curtains. The magpie turned its head fiercely towards her and gave her a long piercing look before flying off. The mother quickly drew the curtains and turned back towards her child.
Was it possible? Was it possible that the order of all things was nothing more than tales they had been told and repeated over and over down through the years? She shook her head, wanting to shake off such a crazy thought. But it was all so odd that she could not stop questioning what was happening.
She sat down on the bed and put her hand over her daughter’s and said gently “Tell me how you became friends.”
At first the girl didn’t want to talk, but after some coaxing she told her mother all about how she made friends with the little grass snake and how the magpie and field mouse eventually joined their small party.
The mother listened, astonished. It never occurred to her that creatures from the fields could show gratitude or behave like anything other than beasts.
Also it seemed that the countess’s lost and much lamented bracelet may be in a magpie’s nest in one of their yard trees. The woman wasn’t quite sure what to do with that nugget of information.
When the daughter had finished her tale the woman took a moment to digest all she had been told. She thought about trying to explain to the child why she did what she did. Then she thought about telling the girl why she didn’t think it wise to make friends with snakes. She thought about all the different things she could say to make the child see things from her point of view.
But at last all she said was what all she could and should say “I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t done what I did. I promise to never do so again.”
The doctor arrived. He gave the little girl some medicine and asked the mother to get some broth for the child. The mother did so and as the girl sipped the soup the colour slowly returned to her cheeks.
As she watched her child regain her healthy complexion, the woman resolved then and there to never again let her actions be guided by fear or hate. In future she would take the time to really see what was happening. She had learned that a thoughtless defence can all too easily rebound on you and those you hold most dear. And it was a lesson she would never forget.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Well, they all lived. Life has its ups and downs regardless of how you live.
One thing’s for sure though, as long as she lived the mother never again harmed another little grass snake.
As to what happened to the countess’s bracelet? Well, that’s a completely different story.