Long ago in a place not seen by anyone now living, there dwelled a humble farmer with a large family. His land was poor and barely arable, growing only onions, but he tried to scrape out an existence to support his extensive brood. The farmer did not even have a stable to keep his cow. He had to tie the creature to a tree in his yard, so that it would not wander away. However, the cow was his one boon, for it granted the farmer two large pails of milk each and every morning.
One day, as the farmer was carrying his two pails of milk to the farmhouse, a giant was passing by. When the giant saw the frothy milk slopping in the pails, a terrible thirst came over him.
“You, farmer!” the giant boomed. “Give me some of your milk.”
“It is for my family,” the farmer protested. “It’s all we have for our breakfast.”
Now, the giant was a crafty fellow. It would be easy for him to take both pails of milk by force, but he thought if he did so than the farmer might rouse his neighbors and drive him from the country. So he said to the farmer, “If you do not give me one of your pails of milk, I will take both. Do not be so greedy.”
If he had any courage at all, it abandoned the farmer while he stood in the dark shadow cast by the giant. So he gave one of his pails of milk to the giant. The enormous man drank down the milk in one gulp, cast the empty bucket upon the ground, and plodded away.
Every day afterwards, the giant returned and demanded that the farmer give him a pail of milk. Knowing not what else to do, the humble farmer obliged.
However, one day the farmer went to milk his cow, only to discover that it had gone dry, and would give no milk. Not two pails, not one, not even a single drop.
Soon, the giant arrived and demanded his daily drink.
“My cow is dry,” the farmer said. “I have nothing for you this day, and nothing for my family.”
“I suspect you are trying to trick me,” the giant growled. “But I am in a hurry today. So I will make you a deal. Tomorrow, you will give me two buckets of milk. And if you do not have them, the I will eat your oldest child.”
Then the giant stomped away, causing the ground to quake.
The farmer was at a loss for what to do, and began to fret. But his wife said, “Tell a story to the cow, and it will soothe her.”
And so the farmer did as his wife suggested, and spent the afternoon telling tales to the cow.
However, the next morning, when the farmer returned to the cow, it was to discover that she was still dry. Soon enough, the giant arrived in the yard. He leaned down and glared at the farmer with an angry eye.
“I’m ready for my two buckets of milk!” the giant thundered.
“The cow is still dry,” the farmer moaned. “I have no milk to give.”
“I do not like these tricks,” the giant grumbled. “But I am in a hurry today, so I will give you another day’s grace. When I come tomorrow, there better be FIVE buckets of milk waiting for me. Otherwise, I will eat your oldest child AND your youngest, too!”
Then the giant clomped away, causing the trees to tremble and topple.
The farmer was now truly terrified. But his wife said, “Sing a song to the cow and coax the milk from her udder.”
It seemed like a silly idea, but having no better plan, the farmer went into the yard and began singing loudly to the cow. He sang all afternoon and into the evening. At last, exhausted, he went back to his house and fell sound asleep.
However, the next morning, when the farmer returned to the cow, it was to discover that she was still dry. Soon enough, the giant came rumbling into the yard and demanded to have his five buckets of milk.
“The cow is still dry,” the farmer told him. “I have no milk to give.”
“You have tested my patience to the thin,” the giant snarled. “But I am in a hurry today, so I will give you one last chance to please me. When I come tomorrow, there better be TEN buckets of milk waiting for me. Otherwise, I will eat all of your children, and your wife, too.”
Then the giant galumphed away, causing the rocks to tumble down from the nearby mountains.
The farmer was at his wit’s end and felt that everything was lost. But his wife said, “Go and perform a dance for the cow. That will surely start the milk running.”
The farmer felt this was a hopeless suggestion, but not knowing what else to do, he went into the yard and began dancing for the cow. She stared at him with blank eyes, chewing her cud as he pranced before her. He performed well into the night until at last he collapsed from exhaustion and began to slumber in the long, dead grass.
It was not long after he had fallen asleep that the farmer awoke to a sinister hiss. He rubbed his eyes and poked his head from the grass to see the most unbelievable sight. A prodigious snake was slithering out of a hole in the very tree that he used to tie up the cow. At its widest part, the serpent was as thick as a barrel, and it was as long as the tree trunk from where it had come. The snake’s scales glinted in the moonlight—and so did its eyes as it began to suckle the cow, drawing all the precious milk from its udder.
“Ah ha!” thought the farmer. “This is the scoundrel who has been causing me all my grief.”
He quickly fetched an axe and while the giant serpent satiated itself, chopped it in half. As he watched the snake writhing on the ground, dying, the farmer hatched a plan. He had solved one problem, and now he could solve another. So he proceeded to skin and dress the snake and afterwards began roasting its meat over a fire he built in the yard.
As the sun came up, the farmer’s wife peered out of the doorway of the house and said, “What is that smell? Are we to have meat for breakfast for once?”
“No,” the farmer told her. “This is for another purpose. Now fetch me some lye and bring it to me quickly. Then take all of the children and hide in the house. Make not a peep until I tell you it’s safe to come out. Oh, and one more thing. Bring me an onion!”
The wife did as the farmer asked, bringing him the lye and the onion. The farmer sprinkled the lye over the snake meat roasting on the fire. As for the onion, he cut it in half and held it to his eyes, causing the tears to stream down his cheeks. Soon enough, as his family scrambled into their hiding places inside the house, the giant came romping over the hill and into the yard.
“What is that delicious smell?” the giant asked. “I can see you didn’t butcher the cow.”
“These are my children and my wife,” the farmer sobbed. “For the cow is still dry. I could not bare you to devour them whole, so I did the horrible deed myself and am now cooking them on this fire.”
“This farmer is a strange fellow,” the giant thought. “But it makes no difference to me.”
Then, chortling, he snatched the meat from the spit and began gulping down the thick strips of flesh. It wasn’t long before he began to gasp and groan. Next, he began clutching his belly.
“What trick is this?” the giant wailed. He waved a threatening fist at the farmer, but before he could do anything else, he crashed to the ground, dead as a stone. His collapse was so violent that it caused the water to rush over the banks of the nearby river and flood the farmer’s field, covering it with fresh loam.
The tremendous sound roused the farmer’s wife and children from the house. They rushed into the yard to see the farmer standing before the fallen body of the giant. The farmer quickly related the entire story.
“What shall we do to celebrate?” the farmer’s wife wondered when the tale was done.
“Why, I think we should dance!” the farmer proclaimed.
And, as stories go, the farmer and his family lived many years in peace and happiness. Perhaps they are still living so, if they have not died in the meantime.
* * *
That’s a short folktale I wrote based on the stories told to me by my paternal grandfather. I remember listening to him as a boy and being fascinated by the many characters and creatures that populated his tales from Hungary or, as he called it, the “Old Country.” In particular, I remember him describing a snake that would sneak out of a tree hollow and steal the milk from the family cow.
Apparently, this is a common myth: the idea that snakes can steal milk. Of course, it’s scientifically impossible, but it does make for a great story. So, taking inspiration from my grandfather’s words, I decided to write my own tale, drawing on some of the traditions of Hungarian folktales. In particular, Hungarian folktales have their own particular endings and beginnings.
This is also the assignment I’m giving my creative writing students over the next two weeks. Phase 1 is to research myths, legends, and folktales from an ancestral culture. They have to pick three tales and provide a short summary of them. We’ll evaluate the stories and they’ll choose one in particular to focus on. Then, they will either retell that story or use it as inspiration to write a more original tale (as I did).
By the way, here’s a picture of my young grandfather (he’s the boy in the front row, wearing what looks like a gown) and his family in Hungary.