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Twelve Months

 

Do you know how many months there are in a year?
Twelve
What are they?
January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.
As soon as one month ends, the next one begins. February has never once, not once, come before January, or May before April.
One follows the other, and they never meet.
But people say that in the hilly country of Bohemia there was a little girl who once saw all the twelve months at the same time.
How did that come about?
It came about this way.
In a small village there lived a wicked woman who had a daughter and a stepdaughter. She loved her daughter, but the stepdaughter could do nothing to please her. Whatever she did was wrong; whichever way she turned it was in the wrong direction.
The daughter lay in bed whole day long eating gingerbread, while the stepdaughter was on her feet from morning till night-fetching water or carrying wood from the forest, or washing linen in the river, or weeding in the orchard.
She knew the bitter cold of the winter, the sultry heat of the summer, the fresh winds of spring, and the autumn rains. Perhaps that is why she managed once to see all the twelve months in the same time.
It was winter, the middle of January. There was so much snow that it had to be cleared away from the doors with spades, and in the forest on the hill trees stood up to their waits in snowdrifts couldn’t even sway when the wind pushed them.
People kept indoors and sat by their stoves.
On such a day, toward nightfall, the wicked stepmother opened the door, saw the snowstorm raging, and then returned to the warm fire and said to her stepdaughter:
“You ought to go to the forest and pick some snowdrops. Tomorrow is your sister’s name day.”
The little girl glanced at her stepmother: was she joking, or was she really sending her to the forest? It would be terrifying to go to the forest in weather like this. And what snowdrops could there be in midwinter? They never appeared before March, no matter where you looked for them. It would be easy to get lost in the forest, or to sink in snowdrifts.
Her stepsister said to her:
“Even if you do get lost, who is there to mourn for you? Go, and don’t come back without the flowers. Here, take the basket.”
The little girl burst into the tears, but she wrapped herself in a torn shawl and left the house. The wind tore at the shawl and threw snowflakes into her eyes as she walked, dragging her feet through the snowdrifts.
If grew darker and darker, the sky was black, and there was not a single star to peer down at the white earth below.
She came to the forest. Now it was quite dark, and she couldn’t even see her hands. The child sat on the stump of a tree-if she must freeze to death, what difference would it make where she waited?
Suddenly a light flashed far away among the trees-as if a star had got caught among the branches.
The child stood up again and began to struggle toward the light. Often, she sank in the snow, often she had to climb over fallen trees. “I mustn’t lose the light,” she kept thinking of herself. The light became brighter and still brighter. Now she could catch the scent of warm smoke and she could hear the crackling of logs burning in a fire.
On she hurried at them and wondered who they could be. They didn’t look like hunters and certainly not like woodcutters-they were so beautifully dressed, some in silver, some in gold, some in green velvet.
She began to count and she counted twelve: three old people, three middle-aged, three young ones, and the last three were just boys.
The young ones sat close by the fire, the older ones farther away.
Suddenly one old man turned round-the tallest one, with a long beard and bushy eyebrows-and saw the little girl. She was frightened and wanted to run but it was too late. The old man asked her loudly:
“Where did you come from? What do you want?”
The little girl showed her empty basket and said:
“I’ve got to pick some snowdrops and put them in my basket.”
The old man laughed:
“It’s not my idea,” the girl replied. “My stepmother sent me here for them and told me not to come back with an empty basket.”
The twelve men glanced at her then and began to whisper among themselves. The child stood there listening, but she could not make out what they were saying; it was as though it were not people speaking at all, but the trees rustling.
They whispered and whispered and then they stopped.
The tall old man turned to her again and asked:
“What will you do if you don’t find the snowdrops? They won’t appear before March, you know.”
“I must stay in the forest,” answered the girl. “I’ll wait for March. It would be better to freeze to death in the woods than to go home without the snowdrops.”
She said this and burst into tears.
Suddenly the youngest of the twelve, a gay fellow with his fur coat hanging over one shoulder, rose to his feet and walked up to the ld man.
“Brother January,” he said, “let me come in your place for an hour.”
The old man stroked his long beard and said:
“I would do it willingly, but March can’t come before February.”
“It’s all right,” murmured another old man, very shaggy, with an untidy beard. “You can let him come in your place for an hour, I won’t argue! We all of us know this child-sometimes at the river with her pails, or in the forest gathering a handful of wood…she’s on of us. She belongs to all of us, to all the months, so we must help her now.”
“So be it,” said old January.
He struck his ice-axe and said:


“Frosts keep away
From the trees in the forest,
Leave the core
Of the birch, or the pine
Freeze neither the ravens
Nor houses of men!”


He fell silent and silence descended on the forest too. The trees stopped crackling from the forest and the snow fell in large, soft flakes.
“Now it’s your turn, friend,” said January, and handed the axe to his younger brother, shaggy February.
He struck his axe again, shook his beard and howled:


“Winds, gales, storms,
Blow as hard as you can,
Rage the whole night long.
Whistle in the chimneys,
Drum in the skies,
Twist and turn over the earth,
Like a great white snake.”


And as soon as he had said this a wet, stormy wind began to blow and shook the branches. The snowflakes whirled and whirled and raced over the earth. February handed his axe to his younger brother and said:
“Your turn, brother March.”
March hit the ground with his axe.
The little girl stared and saw that it wasn’t an axe any longer: it was a large branch, covered with buds.
March threw back his head and laughed, and began to sing loudly in his clear, young voice:


“Streams, flow merrily,
Pools, overflow,
Come out, little ants
And warm yourselves
After winter’s chill.
The bear is quitting his lair
And strolls in the forest;
The birds are singing
And the snowdrops are pushing through the earth.”


The little girl clapped her hands in surprise. Where had the snowdrifts gone to? Where were the icicles hanging from every branch?
There was soft, fresh earth beneath her feet. All round her she heard the ripple of running water, and the sound of melting snow. The buds on the branches were bursting and green leaves pushed out of their dark skins.
The little girl could hardly believe her eyes.
“You mustn’t stand and stare,” said March to her. “You must hurry, for we have only an hour to do what we want!”
So the little girl stopped staring and rushed into the forest to search for snowdrops-are there were thousands of them! Under the bushes, under the stones, here, there, and everywhere she looked. She picked a whole basketful, filled her apron too. And hurried back to the clearing where the twelve brothers had sat round the fire.
But there was no more fire, and the brothers were gone. It was very light in the clearing, but now it was a different light-not from the fire, but the full moon that had appeared above the forest trees.
She was sorry she had no one to thank, but as there was nothing else to do she ran off home, and the moon lighted her way, she scarcely felt her feet under her until she reached the door, but she had hardly had time to walk in before the snowstorm raged again and the moon vanished behind the clouds.
“Ah, so you’re back already!’ said her stepmother and sister. “Where are the snowdrops?”
she didn’t reply but poured the snowdrops from her apron on to the bench and put the basket beside them.
The stepmother and sister were amazed.
“Where did you get them?”
The little girl told them all that had happened. They listened and shook their heads, not knowing whether to believe her or not. It was hard to believe, but there were the snowdrops, all fresh and white, lying on the bench to remind one of March.
They exchanged sidelong glances, and the stepmother asked:
“Did the months give you anything else?”
“I didn’t ask them for anything else.”
“What a fool, what a fool!” said stepsister. “To think that you met all twelve months at once and did not ask them for anything but snowdrops. Had I been in your place, I would have known what to ask for. I’d have asked one for apples and sweet pears, the other for ripe strawberries, the third for tasty mushrooms, the fourth for fresh cucumbers.”
“There’s a clever girl!” said the stepmother. “In the winter, strawberries and pears are beyond price. We might have sold them and for so much money! And this little fool brings nothing but snowdrops! Put on some warm clothes, my girl, and go the clearing. They won’t pull the wool over your eyes, though there are twelve of them to your one.”
“They certainly won’t!” answered her daughter, her arms already in her sleeves and a kerchief over her head.
Her mother shouted after her:
“Put on mittens, and button up your coat.”
But the door had already closed behind her. She ran to the forest.
She hurried along, following her sister’s footsteps.
“The sooner I get to the clearing, the better,” she thought.
The forest was dense and dark, the snowdrifts high, rising like a wall.
“Oh!” thought the girl. “Why on earth did I choose to come to the forest, instead of staying in my warm bed? I’m frozen to the bone and am sure to catch my death of cold!”
Hardly were the words out of her mouth before she caught sight of a light in the distance-as if a star had got caught in the branches.
She went towards the light, struggling through the snow, and finally came to the clearing. A large woodpile was burning, softly talking to one another.
She walked up to the fire, did not bow in greeting or say a kind word, but chose the best spot and sat down to get warm.
The brothers fell silent. The forest was still. Suddenly January struck his axe on the ground.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Where do you come from?”
“From my house,” the girl replied. “You have given my sister a large basket of snowdrops. So I came, following her footsteps.”
“We know your sister,” said January, “but we’ve never set eyes on you. What is the purpose of your visit?”
“I’ve come for present. I want June to fill my basket with strawberries, and I’d like large ones too. And July could give me fresh cucumbers and white mushrooms, and August some sweet pears and apples. September could give me ripe nut. And October…”
“Wait a moment,” said January. “Summer doesn’t come before spring or spring before winter. It’s a long way to go yet until the month of June. I’m January, the master of the forest now, and I shall reign here for thirty-one days.”
“How disagreeable you are!” said the girl. “It’s not you I came to see at all! There nothing to get from you but hoar and frost. It’s summer months I want.”
January frowned. “Search for summer in the winter,” he said.
He waved his great sleeve and a snowstorm blew up from the earth to the sky shrouding the trees and the clearing where the twelve brothers were sitting. One could not even see the fire for the snow, one could only hear it hissing somewhere, crackling and moaning.
The girl was suddenly terrified. “Stop! She cried. “Stop! That’s enough!”
But it was in vain.
The snowstorm was whirling around her. Blinding her, and she couldn’t breathe. She fell down in a snowdrift and was buried under soft white snow.
Her mother waited and waited for her, peered out of the window, rushed to the door, but there was no sign of her. She wrapped herself up warmly and went to the forest. But how could she hope to find her in such a storm, in such blackness! She walked and walked, and searched high and low but she found nothing.
And so they remained there, both of them in the forest, to await the coming of summer.
The other little girl lived on happily, grew into a young woman, got married and had children.
And she had a garden round her house. People said that such a wondrous garden had never seen before. Flowers bloomed there before anywhere else, berries ripened, pears and apples mellowed. It was cool in the sweltering heat, quiet in a storm.
“All the months of the year seem to visit that young woman at once,” people used to say.
And who knows? Perhaps it was the truth.

 

Copyright © 2006 Russian Fairy Tales

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