The old woman sat rubbing the lace on the edges of her lap quilt. Her eyes saw much that was not the children gathered at her feet, and she began.
“Once Upon A Time there was a wise and wonderful teacher. His words were few, but those he spoke were replete with compassion for all life. One hundred good deeds for every word spoken was his guiding principle so his disciples were few, in spite of his fame and his country’s high regard. Even the Emperor honored this man and yearly sent offerings across the wide blue river. Baskets of fresh fish, jewels, soft cloth, loaves and bright fragrant fruit of all description came always with a well worded invitation to travel to the capitol and teach in the courts.
The Master chose for his home the most barren part of the kingdom. Rotting buildings and rutted roads still paid homage to when it had been a trade center surrounded by fertile fields, and fragrant woods noisy with the calls of birds and animals. Three generations of over planting of the wrong crops, rotated at the whims of the wealthy class tastes instead of the needs of the earth, over hunting of both large and small game, the felling of trees without replanting, and the general neglect of those who farmed, chopped and slaughtered the many exports had left the population as crippled as the peninsula’s resources. Then the Emperor’s city finally spread its lavish hips to the ocean’s edge, and even the port closed.
The jewels were returned with the invitations to court. The fine cloth was sewn by his and others hands into shirts for weathered backs while the softest bolts were used to wrap for the few babies still born, and those too old to do much but smile and reminisce. The fruit and the loaves were distributed, the fish were roasted and stewed and shared at community fires of old stories and songs, while the master sat happy and smiling, slurping a bit of steaming broth.
The Master was so kind that he would weep for and make an offering to the souls of the insects his worn boots had crushed inadvertently during the hard labors of his days. Many a mouse family un-housed in the matted tufts of the fields grew to adulthood in his humble walls fed on loaf ends and apple core.
One day the old teacher decided it was time he pay proper respect to the benefactor who had kept his friends and families alive these many years; it was time he travel to court and share the truths that brought him such great happiness with the kind king. He woke that morning and readied himself for the journey, though that was a simple matter of tying his offering bowl, and two days provisions in cloth and choosing a walking stick from the weathered ghosts of trees nearby. The river was two days as the crow flies and five by the road, and on the other side of the river a city whose beggars ate well compared to what he was used to consuming.
He chose not to travel alone, but since no more than two pairs of hands could be spared, h e took only his youngest disciple. This follower was a promising young woman who had come from the courts to follow him two years prior. The trip would also give her the opportunity to pay respect to her parents and ancestors.
As they approached the river the trees grew greener and older, the roots so deep that farming was impossible, their branches hung with vines, their only fruits shone invitingly, As the girl reached for one, the teacher stopped her. “Note,” he said, “the animals do not eat these, neither should we.”
“Ah,” the girl said retracting her grasp, “Poison!”
“I heard,” she said, “that there is nothing left here by the river but that which, stings, bites or poisons?”
“Yes.” was all he replied, than began searching for a rope to use to help the tie the young girl high on his back while crossing the rushing rocky river for he was a very strong swimmer and she still sleight, her body so new to hard labor.
The Master finally found one that suited him but as he grasped it, the rope vine opened its eyes. The man dropped the serpent and stepped back quickly.
“Wait,” the wily snake called, for it was not a rope vine at all but a snake who had lived since the times before when game came to drink here, and meals were easy. He refused to chase mice and work hard like his brothers now did in the fields. So here he stayed in the tree growing fatter and lazier and more crafty. For many years he had eaten a man or two a month , and lived by tricking the odd river traveler or the fat and much more delicious couples who came below this tree’s boughs to sneak kisses.
A tale had grown in the city of a hungry ghost who devoured all that came near the tree. As those who disappeared were those rich enough to afford daytime leisure, others said it was divine justice, and even others claimed a curse had been wished upon the wealthy by the poor. The snake did not care which story they believed, where once the fame flattered him, now it meant fewer couples came, and the snake was hungry. “These two travelers here” he thought “are so thin that they will barely make a meal if eaten together, but here they are” and so the snake hung his head and gasped as if it was his last breath, stretching himself as long and thin and pitiable as possible.
“Wait!” he called again, “Please save me!” He gasped, coughed, fell to the ground and wailed, “Oh please, at least tell me your names that I may know the last faces my eyes will ever see.” He closed his eyes and managed what he always felt was a quite convincing imitation of a death shudder, then blinked his eyes a bit and whispered hoarsely, “and they are such beautiful faces, please tell me your stories that I might die while listening to your epic tales.”
Thus he had tricked travelers before, with flattery and offers to speak of themselves and their lives. For most humans, this was more than adequate bait. The snake would listen with proper intermittent sighs and whimpers as the man or woman would wax poetic on their conquests and tragedies. Slowly, and ever so slowly he slipped his long silky coils about the bodies of the tellers, until bored with all the talk of them and not him, he would squeeze until the words stopped and he swallowed them whole. These two humans were much different than any who had come for dinner. They neither moved closer to him with curiosity or spoke. The man merely stared at him with the kindest of eyes. The deep light in those eyes made the snake hunger for the taste of something he barely remembered from a happier time.
Their eyes stayed locked as the girl continued the search for an appropriate vine.”Master,” she called, “How about this one?”
“She called him Master,” The serpent felt a new kind of awe and desire as he realized before him was the great teacher of happiness of whom he had heard from many a previous meal. “I must taste happiness again,” he thought, and a new plan formed.
The snake resumed his natural length and breadth, his voice spoke now with its natural timbre.”I am sorry for my attempt at deception. I thought to trick you into inattention and then eat you. But I see the happiness in you, and I wish more than anything to be happy.”
The master said nothing.
“I am a fast and strong swimmer,” the snake now continued, pouring all is desire into his words, “I will gladly carry you both on my back across the river, but first master, you must teach me to be happy.”.
The master nodded, sat down beneath the tree and began teaching the snake. A day and a night and a day passed with the snake repenting vociferously of his evil ways while the young girl wept with his sorrows and sang with his joy of unburdening. Finally the Master, having spent more than a years labors of words teaching what he knew of service, compassion and happiness, stopped talking.
“As my first service I shall carry you both across this river on my back,” cried the snake with tears of gratitude pouring from voice and eyes.
“No,” said the teacher, “you have just told me many stories of your taste for humans, and though I believe your repentance is real, I cannot risk another’s life, you will only carry me and then I will attach the vine to a tree on the other side that I might more easily bring my disciple”
“If I cannot carry you both, then I will be the rope.” the snake cried with even more sincerity. “Whatever pain it causes will only bring me joy of service, please let me be your rope.”
“I honor you as the rope that will save me,” the girl cried throwing herself upon the serpents neck as their tears blended like lovers, and she wrenched the vine from the teachers hand and through it to rush away with the river.
The teacher grunted and climbed atop the snake. His grabbed grabbed tightly to the arched neck, trying to only hold hard enough to stay on, but light enough to cause no damage to the serpents scales. The snake was still singing the masters praise when halfway across the river he dragged the teacher into the depth of the water to drown, and ate him.
The girl screamed and ran back towards the village crying. The snake returned to bask on the river bank, digesting all he would ever know of happiness.”
The storyteller paused.
“Is that all?” a young voice queried, “If so,it wasn’t a very good story.”
“I am afraid not,” the woman sighed, leaning back on a slightly blackened chair, “I wish it was.”
“Many years later,” she began again, “after the girl had herself become a great teacher…” Her eyes again seeing the past and not her audience.
“The storm that hit in the girls 50th year brought little rain, but much in the way of thunder and lightening. Just as the sun was setting on the first night of autumn, an unthinkable disaster occurred. Instead of striking the tall metal poles placed to catch it, the lightening struck a bone dry field and would not be contained.
Led by the newest masters disciple’s, all the regions families poured onto the main road seeking to cross the river, and safely flee the fire. Carried by the very arms of earth’s compassion, and inspired by their own desire to save each other, the journey-time to the bridge was more than halved. The bravest of the regions men fought with soaked blankets the first licks and bites of flame as the slowest families with children and those with the infirm on their back began to cross. Then came the mice and other such animals as still lived in the fire zone and finally the last to reach the bridge was the master.
Of course by then the planks and supports were being devoured outright by dancing red demons, the air filled with shouts and smoke and flame. The master stepped onto the bridge, and then stepped back just as quickly, feeling the skin seared from her cheeks as the middle of the bridge and few vermin crashed into the tumbling waters.
A plaintive voice called out, “Please help me and I will help you, or we will both die in this inferno,” The master turned to see a very large, very old serpent slowly pulling himself towards where the bridge had been. “I slither slowly at my advanced age, but I swim quickly. Let me help you so you can help me”
“What help could I be to you?” she asked, “if you are such a swimmer as you say?”
“I can no longer see or smell with this smoke, I cannot find a place to enter the river, come close and throw me in and I catch you with my tale, place you on my back and then carry you across.”
“No,” the woman said, “I am sorry, perhaps another would have, but I will not.”
“You must help me,” he pled,”I swear on all that is holy that I will not harm you, I am a disciple of the same teachings you follow, I know you must help me. It is your sworn duty.”
“I choose not to help you.”
“But without your help I will die, please save me that I might also save you. Oh, please,” he begged, “Do me this honor that I might honor you as my salvation.”
The woman laughed, “You do not recognize the girl of 10 I was then, but once I honored you as my salvation, thinking you a rope. But that day you opened my eyes, now I see only snake.” She looked at the snake one last time, “Now I take my chances with the fire and the river.” And the new master dove into the milieu of burning wood and water.”
The old woman stopped speaking, her fingers resumed their scritchy rhythm against the lace on her blanket.
“Is that the end of that story?” the small voice most often heard at any gathering piped up at the long silence. When the woman did not answer other voices joined the first.
“I don’t understand, what happened to the snake”
“He died of the fire of course?”
“Is that story true?”
“Was that the right thing for the master to do?”
“I truly don’t know,” the woman said to herself, as scarred hands touched her disfigured face, “But I am here and the snake is dead. And every day for a year I honored the snakes memory, as just what he was, a snake.”