A story from India
Once upon a time there was a woman who was desperately poor. She lived by herself in the city and she was so lonely and tired and hungry that she didn’t see the point of living any more. One day, she went down to the river to take a bath and she carried a tall metal pot to fetch some water for drinking, although she had no food to eat with it.
Whilst she was bathing, she left her little pot on the riverbank covered with a cloth, to keep the inside nice and clean. When she came up out of the river and took the cloth off to fill the pot with water, however, she had a terrible shock. Inside the pot there was a dangerous snake. Its skin looked like a rainbow in the morning light. Immediately she put the cloth back in the top of the pot and said to herself, “I will take this snake back to my house and shake it out of the pot. Then it will bite me and I will die and all my troubles will end.”
With these sad thoughts in her mind, the poor woman hurried home, holding her cloth carefully in the mouth of the pot. When she got home, she shut all the doors and windows, took away the cloth, and turned the pot upside down. To her amazement, however, what fell out was not a snake, but a beautiful necklace of sparkling jewels.
For a few minutes she could not think or speak. She just looked at it without moving. Then she picked the necklace up and hurried to the king’s palace. She asked to speak to him and after a long wait, she took the necklace out of her coat pocket and showed it to him. As soon as the king saw it, he fell in love with it. He wanted to own it immediately. So, he gave the woman five hundred silver pieces for it and put it into his pocket. The woman went away full of happiness, because five hundred pieces of silver was enough to live on for many years.
As soon as he could, the king hurried to show the gorgeous necklace to his wife. She loved it, too. When they had finished admiring it, they locked it in the queen’s large jewellery chest.
A few weeks later, a neighbouring king sent a message to say that his wife had given birth to a lovely baby girl and he was having a party to celebrate. The queen said: “Oh, we have to go to the celebration. I will wear the new necklace you gave me.” Before they left, the king went to the jewel chest to take out the necklace for his wife to wear. He unlocked the chest, but when he opened it, he had an incredible surprise.
The king fell backwards. He could see no necklace at all. Instead, there was a fat, little baby boy, crying and screaming. The king also started screaming. “Waaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” The queen came running, thinking that the necklace had been stolen.
“Look here, look!” cried the king. “We have always wanted a son. Now heaven has sent us one!”
“What do you mean?” cried the queen. “Are you crazy?”
“No, I’m not crazy!” said the king. “Look in this chest!”
The queen looked inside and gasped. Just then the baby giggled with joy.
“Oh!” she cried. “What a darling! Where did he come from?”
“I don’t know”, said the king, “But it doesn’t matter. This is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen.”
The queen picked up the baby boy and held him in her arms. “Oh, happy day! Write to our neighbour. Tell him we cannot go to his party, because we have a celebration of our own!”
So the king and queen did not go to their neighbour’s party. Instead, they had a feast in their own palace and there were fireworks and dancing and that lasted a whole week.
A few years passed. The king’s baby boy and his neighbour’s baby girl grew up to be healthy, handsome and clever. The two kings agreed that when their children were old enough, they would marry. This happened when they were both eighteen years old.
Now, I must tell you that the woman who sold the king the necklace became a servant at the palace. She was a good servant to the little prince. However, she couldn’t help talking about her story – about taking a bath in the river and finding a snake that turned into a necklance. Soon rumours spread across the kingdom. People said there was some magic about the young prince’s birth. The rumour spread to the neighbouring kingdom, to the ears of the princess’s parents. Her mother was especially curious about this strange story. So, the day before the prince and princess’s wedding, she said to her daughter: “Remember, you must find out the truth about his story. Find out about the magic! Ask him on the day of your wedding If he doesn’t tell you, you must not talk to him again!” The young princess promised that she would follow her mother’s advice.
After their wedding, the princess did not speak to her husband. He could not understand. “What is the matter?” he thought. Even at home, she would not say a word. Finally, he begged her to tell him what the problem was.
“Tell me the secret of your birth!” she said.
The prince was very sad and upset. The princess asked him again and again, but he would always reply the same way: “If I tell you, you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
For several months they lived together, but they were not happy. The secret created a wall between. Finally, the prince could not stand it any longer, so he said to his wife one day: “At midnight I will tell you my secret if you still want to know. But remember, you will regret it all your life.” However, the princess was so happy that he would tell her his secret that she that she did not listen to his warnings.
That night the prince and princess rode on horses together down to the river to the place where the woman had first found the snake in her metal pot. There the prince said sadly: “Do you still insist that I tell you my secret?”
And the princess answered “Yes.”
“If I do,” answered the prince, “you will regret it all your life.”
But the princess only replied, “Tell me!”
“Then,” said the prince, “know this: I am the son of the king of a faraway country, but a witch cast a spell and turned me into a snake.”
As soon as the prince said the word “snake”, he disappeared.
The princess heard a noise on the wind and in the moonlight she saw a snake swimming into the river. Soon it disappeared and she was left alone. She waited with beating heart for something to happen, and for the prince to come back to her. But nothing happened and no one came. Only the wind blew and the owl cried and the river flowed black below her.
In the morning, people from the palace found her crying, wet and cold. They looked for her husband, but nobody could find him. After a few weeks, she asked for a small house to be built next to the river, where she lived with only a few servants. She dressed in black every day and never smiled. In this way, she lived in mourning for five years.
One morning, when she woke up, she noticed there was mud on the carpet of her bedroom. She was shocked. “Who entered my room?” she thought. She asked the guards, who watched outside the house day and night They said no one entered her room, because they were watching very carefully. The next morning, she again found mud on her carpet and also on her blanket. Nobody knew why there was mud in her room. On the third night, the princess wanted to stay awake and watch, so she cut her finger with a knife and rubbed salt into the wound, so that the pain would stop her from sleeping. So, she lay in bed, awake. At midnight, she saw a snake come slithering into her room. It came near her bed and climbed up onto her blanket. She was very frightened, but tried to control her fear, and called out: “Who are you, and what do want here?”
The snake answered: “I am the prince, your husband, and I have come to visit you.”
Then the princess began to cry. The snake continued speaking.
“I told you that you would regret asking me for my secret.”
“Oh, I regret it,” cried the poor princess, “I was so stupid. Please, can I do something to make you human again?”
And the snake answered: “Yes, there is one thing, if you are brave enough.”
“Oh, tell me!” said the princess. “I will do anything.”
“Then,” replied the snake, “tomorrow night you must put a large bowl of milk and sugar in each of the four corners of this room. All the snakes in the river will come out to drink the milk, and the one that leads the others will be the queen of the snakes. You must stand in fron of her at the door, and say, “Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband!” and perhaps she will do it. But if you are frightened, and do not stop her, you will never see me again.” And he slithered away.
The next night, the princess got four large bowls of milk and sugar, and put one in each corner of the room, and stood in the doorway waiting. At midnight there was a loud hissing, and suddenly the ground appeared to be alive with horrible snakes slithering on top of each other. Their eyes were shiny and their tongues looked like forks. They were all rushing to the princess’ house. At the front, there was one snake who was particularly disgusting. It was huge and its eyes were like lanterns in the dark. The guards were so frightened that they all ran away; but the princess stood in the doorway and held her hands tight together. She was so frightened, but she tried not to show it. When the snakes saw the princess in fronts of them, they all moved their heads from side to side. They stuck out their tongues and hit the princess in the face. Their breath smelled like poison. But the princess held her hands together and did not move. The leading snake moved its head within a few centimeters of the princess and opened its mouth, as if it was going to bite her head off. Just then, the princess shouted out: “Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband!” Then the horrible crowd of snakes whispered to each other, “Her husband, her husband…” The queen of snakes closed her mouth and her eyes seemed to flash fire. Still the princess stood in the doorway and never moved, but cried again: “Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband!” Then the queen of snakes replied: “I don’t need him anymore. Tomorrow you will have him – tomorrow!”
When she heard these words, the princess fainted onto her bed. She had a dream. She saw that her room was full of snakes, all slithering against each other and trying to drink from the bowls of milk. The sound and the smell were disgusting. The princess wanted to scream. And then they went away.
In the morning the princess woke up early and took off the mourning dress which she had worn for five years, and put on beautiful, colourful clothes. Then she cleaned the house and put fresh flowers in every room. She prepared the house as if she were preparing for her own wedding. When night came, she lit up the woods and gardens with lanterns, lit a thousand wax candles inside the house and prepared a feast on her kitchen table. Then she waited for her husband and thought about whether he would come back as a human or as a snake. She hoped and hoped he would come back as a human, as her prince.
At midnight she heard a sound from the river. She closed her eyes because she was too frightened to look. She heard more noise and the front door opened. Still she kept her eyes shut. Then she felt two warm hands on her cheeks and heard a laugh. She opened her eyes and saw her husband in front of her, with tears in his eyes. She threw herself into his arms, crying and laughing, too.
So, the prince came home and the next day he took his wife back to the palace. They old king and queen cried with joy when they saw him again. There was another celebration, one that people remembered for years and years.
The woman who had found the snake by the river was now old, but she became a servant to the prince and princess’s children. She was too old to do anything except love them, but she felt happier than ever. So, too, were the prince and princess and when they became king and queen, they ruled a peaceful country for many, many years.