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Authors: Andrus Kivirähk

The Man Who Spoke Snakish

BOOK: The Man Who Spoke Snakish
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The Man
Who Spoke
Snakish
Andrus Kivirähk
Translated by
Christopher Moseley

Copyright © 2007 by Andrus Kivirähk
Translation copyright © 2015 by Christopher Moseley

Cover design and illustration by Gretchen Mergenthaler
Author photograph © Sabrina Mariez

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove Atlantic, 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011 or
[email protected]
.

This book has been published in the USA with permission of Le Tripode, 16 rue Charlemagne 75004 Paris, France. The book was first published in Estonia by Eesti Keele Sihtasutus under the title
Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu
.

Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America

FIRST EDITION

ISBN 978-0-8021-2412-8
eISBN 978-0-8021-9095-6

Black Cat
an imprint of Grove Atlantic
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011

Distributed by Publishers Group West

groveatlantic.com

15 16 17 18 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

One

he forest has been left empty. These days you hardly meet anyone, apart from the dung beetles, of course. Nothing seems to affect them; they go on humming and buzzing, just as before. They fly to suck blood or bite, or perhaps climb absurdly on your leg if you get in their way, and scurry hither and thither until you wipe them off or flick them away. Their world is just as it was—but it won’t stay that way. The bell will toll even for the dung beetles! Of course I won’t see that day; no one will. But one day that hour will strike. I know that quite certainly.

I don’t go out much anymore, only about once a week do I go above ground. I go to the well; I fetch water. I wash myself and my companion; I scrub his hot body. It uses a lot of water—I have to go to the well several times a day—but it rarely happens that I meet anyone on the path that I might chat to. Not often a human, anyway; a couple of times I’ve met a buck or a boar. They’ve become timid. They’re even afraid of my scent. If I hiss, they stiffen on the spot, glare at me stupidly, but they never come close. They stare as if at a miracle of nature—a
human who knows the language of Snakish. This drives them into even greater terror. They would like to butt me into the bushes, give me a wound in the legs, and run as far as possible from this strange freak—but they daren’t. The words forbid it. I hiss at them again, louder this time. With a gruff command I force them to come to me. The beasts low despondently, dragging themselves reluctantly in my direction. I could take pity on them and let them go, but what for? Inside me there is a strange hatred toward the newcomers who don’t know the old ways and just gambol through the forest, as if it had been created at the dawn of time just for them to loll about in. So I hiss a third time, and this time my words are as strong as a quagmire from which it’s impossible to escape. The crazed animals rush toward me as if shot from a bow, while all their innards burst with unbearable tension. They are torn apart, like the tearing of trousers that are too tight, and their intestines spill out onto the grass. It’s disgusting to see, and I get no pleasure from it, but nevertheless I can never let my powers go untested. It’s not my fault that these beasts have forgotten the words of snakes that my ancestors used to teach them.

One time it went differently, however. I was just coming back from the well, a heavy skinful of water on my shoulder, when all at once I saw a big deer on my path. I instantly hissed some simple words, already feeling scorn for the deer’s plight. But the deer didn’t flinch when it heard long-forgotten words of command issuing unexpectedly from the mouth of a man-child. In fact he lowered his head and came up to me, got down on his knees and submissively offered his neck, just as in the old days, when we used to get our food this way—by calling the deer to be killed. How often as a little boy I had seen my mother
getting winter provisions for our family in this way! She would select the most suitable cow from the big herd of deer, call her over, and then lightly slit the throat of the submissive animal, hissing snake-words at her. A fully grown deer cow would last us a whole winter. How ridiculous the villagers’ foolish hunting seemed compared to our simple way of getting food. They would spend hours chasing one deer, firing many arrows haphazardly into the bushes, and then afterward, often as not, going home empty-handed and disappointed. All you needed to get a deer to submit to you were a few words! Words that I had just used. A big strong deer was lying at my feet, just waiting. I could have killed it with a single movement of my hand. But I didn’t.

Instead I took the waterskin off my shoulder and offered the deer a drink. He lapped it meekly. He was an old bull, quite old. He must have been; otherwise he would not have remembered how a deer should behave when called by a human. He would have struggled and grappled, tried to get to the treetops, perhaps using his teeth, even as the ancient force of the words drew him to me; he would have come to me like a fool, whereas now he came to me like a king. No matter that he was coming to be slaughtered. Even that is a skill to be learned. Is there anything humiliating about submitting yourself to age-old laws and customs? Not in my opinion. We never killed a single deer for fun. What fun is there to be had in that? We needed to eat, there was a word that would get food for you, and the deer knew that word and obeyed it. What is humiliating is to forget everything, like those young boars and bucks, who take fright when they hear the words. Or the villagers, who would go out in their dozens just to catch one deer. It is stupidity that is humiliating, not wisdom.

I gave the deer a drink and stroked his head and he rubbed his muzzle against my jacket. So the old world had not completely vanished after all. As long as I’m alive, as long as that old deer is alive, Snakish will still be known and remembered around these parts.

I let the deer go. May he live long. And remember.

What I was actually going to tell a story about was the funeral of Manivald. I was six years old at the time. I had never seen Manivald with my own eyes, because he didn’t live in the forest, but by the sea. To this day I don’t actually know why Uncle Vootele took me with him to the funeral. There were no other children there. My friend Pärtel wasn’t there, nor was Hiie. But Hiie had definitely been born by then; she was only a year younger than me. Why didn’t Tambet and Mall take her with them? It was after all for them just a pleasant occasion—not in the sense that they had anything against Manivald or that his death would bring them pleasure. No, far from it. Tambet respected Manivald very much; I clearly remember what he said at the funeral pyre: “Men like that are not born anymore.” He was right; they weren’t. In fact no men at all were being born anymore, at least not in our district. I was the last; a couple of months before me there was Pärtel; a year later Tambet and Mall had Hiie. She wasn’t a man; she was a girl. After Hiie, only weasels and hares were born in the forest.

Of course Tambet didn’t know that at the time, nor did he want to. He always believed that the old times would come again, and so on. He couldn’t believe otherwise; that’s the kind of man he was, strongly loyal to all the ways and customs. Every
week he would go to the sacred grove and tie colored strips of cloth to a linden tree, believing he was making a sacrifice to the nature spirits. Ülgas, the Sage of the Grove, was his best friend. Actually, the word “friend” isn’t right; Tambet wouldn’t have called him his friend. That would have seemed the height of boorishness to the sage. He was great and holy, and had to be respected, not befriended.

Naturally Ülgas was also at Manivald’s funeral. How could he not be? He was the one who had to light the funeral pyre and accompany the soul of the departed to the spirit world. He did this at annoying length: he sang, he beat a drum, he burned some mushrooms and straw. That was how the dead had been cremated from age to age; that was what had to be done. That is why I say that that funeral was very much to Tambet’s taste. He liked all sorts of rituals. As long as things were done the way his forefathers had done them, Tambet was happy.

Afterward, I felt terribly sad; I remember it clearly. I didn’t know Manivald at all, so I couldn’t have been grieving; all the same, I was just gazing around me. At first it was exciting to see the dead man’s wrinkled face with its long beard—and quite gruesome too, because I’d never seen a dead person before. The sage’s incantations and conjurations went on so long that in the end it was no longer either exciting or terrifying. I would just as soon have run away—to the seashore, since I’d never been there before. I was a child of the forest. But Uncle Vootele kept me there, whispering in my ear that soon they’d be lighting the pyre. At first it was impressive, and I did want to see the fire, especially how it burns a man up. What would come out of him? What kind of bones did he have? I stayed on the spot, but Ülgas the Sage carried on with his never-ending observances and in
the end I was half dead with boredom. It wouldn’t even have interested me if Uncle Vootele had promised to flay the corpse before burning; I just wanted to go home. I yawned audibly, and Tambet glared at me with his goggle-eyes and growled, “Quiet, boy, you’re at a funeral! Listen to the sage!”

“Go on, run around!” Uncle Vootele whispered to me. I ran to the seashore and jumped into the waves fully clothed; then I played with the sand, until I looked like a lump of mud. Then I noticed that the bonfire was already burning, and I ran back to the fire at top speed, but there was no sign left of Manivald. The flames were so big they rose up to the stars.

“How filthy you are!” said Uncle Vootele, trying to wipe me clean with his sleeve. Again I met Tambet’s fierce gaze, because obviously it wasn’t the done thing to behave at funerals as I was, and Tambet was always very particular about observing the rules.

I didn’t care about Tambet, because he wasn’t my father or uncle, just a neighbor who was fierce but didn’t have any power over me. I tugged at Uncle Vootele’s beard and demanded, “Who was Manivald? Why did he live by the sea? Why didn’t he live in the forest like us?”

“His home was by the sea,” replied Uncle Vootele. “Manivald was an old, wise man. The oldest of us all. He had even seen the Frog of the North.”

“Who was the Frog of the North?” I asked.

“The Frog of the North is a great snake, the biggest of all, much bigger than the king of the snakes. He is as big as a forest and he can fly. He has enormous wings. When he rises in the air, he covers the sun and the moon. In ancient times he used to rise often in the sky and devour all our enemies who came to
that shore in their boats. And after he had devoured them, we took their possessions. So we were rich and powerful. We were feared, because no one got out alive from that coast. They also knew that we were rich, and their greed overcame their fear. More and more boats sailed to our shore to steal our treasures, and the Frog of the North killed them all.”

“I want to see the Frog of the North too,” I said.

“I’m afraid you can’t anymore,” sighed Uncle Vootele. “The Frog of the North is asleep and we can’t wake him up. There are too few of us.”

“One day we will!” said Tambet. “Don’t talk like that, Vootele! What kind of defeatist nonsense is that? Mark my words. We will see the day when the Frog of the North rises in the sky and eats up all the paltry iron men and village rats!”

“You’re talking nonsense,” said Uncle Vootele. “How is that supposed to happen, when you know very well that it would take at least ten thousand men to wake up the Frog of the North? Only when ten thousand men together say the snake-words will the Frog of the North wake up from his secret nest and rise up under the sky. Where are those ten thousand? We can’t even get ten together!”

“You must not give in!” hissed Tambet. “Look at Manivald. He was always hopeful and did his duty every day! Every time he noticed a ship on the horizon, he would set a dry stump alight, to announce to everyone: ‘It’s time for the Frog of the North to wake!’ Year after year he did that, even though no one had answered his call for ages, and the alien boats would land and the iron men came ashore with impunity. But he didn’t smite with his fist. He just went on pulling up stumps and drying them out, lighting them up and waiting—just waiting! He was
waiting for the Frog of the North to come in power to the forest once again, as in the good old days!”

“He will never come again,” said Uncle Vootele gloomily.

“I want to see him,” I insisted. “I want to see the Frog of the North!”

“You won’t,” said Uncle Vootele.

“Is he dead?” I asked.

“No, he will never die,” my uncle said. “He’s asleep. I just don’t know where. No one knows.”

Disappointed, I fell silent. The story of the Frog of the North was interesting, but it had a bad ending. What was the use of miraculous things one can never see? Tambet and my uncle carried on arguing while I traipsed back to the seashore. I walked along the beach; it was beautiful and sandy, and here and there large uprooted stumps lay around. They must have been the same ones that the departed and now-immolated Manivald had been drying—to light as beacons that no one heeded. Beside one of the stumps there was a man crouching. It was Meeme. I had never seen him walking, only stretched out under some bush, as if he were a leaf of a tree, carried by the wind from place to place. He was always munching on some fly agaric and always offered some to me too, but I never accepted it, because my mother wouldn’t let me.

BOOK: The Man Who Spoke Snakish
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