Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices


Translated and adapted from Russian by Brian Spalding

© Translation by Brian Spalding

Tsar Nikita and His Forty Princesses
The Golden Cockerel

Tsar Nikita and His Forty Princesses

Bold Tsar Nikita, long ago,
Lived mighty, rich, and free from woe.
Not over-good, nor yet too bad;
His subjects thought him «quite a lad».
He worked a bit; he feasted, drank;
Each Sunday morn his God would thank,
Even though all his women bore
Him girls only, indeed two score
Of them.
Still, they were beautiful;
Their eyes were bright, their lips were full,
Their tresses glossy, bodies slender,
And everything the female gender
Should possess, they did... but one
Detail. When all is said and done,
It surely shouldn't matter much
To lack that hidden final touch
The admiring public does not see.

What was that detail? Modesty
Finds its direct description hard;

[Not like the unknown ribald bard
That wrote about his girl-friend who
What he desired just wouldn't do:
«There was a girl in Coventry
«Who hadn't got a Loventry».]

Untrue of her perhaps, but not
Of those princesses. They lacked what
All common girls possess and treasure,
A simple source of private pleasure;
And pleasure not for them alone.
I share the interest, I own,
Of the preponderance of males
In such out-of-the-way details.

The young and frolicsome princesses
Had no concept of the distresses
Their freakish circumstances wrought
In all adherents of the court.
Their father took the matter ill.
Their mothers' tears would pitchers fill;
And since mid-wives are talkative,
And people more inquisitive
Than wise, the story soon got out;
So everyone had views about
The strange affair, and would express
Them loudly, were the danger less
The Ministry of the Interior
Would send them packing to Siberia.

The Tsar summoned the courtly set,
The lords, the nurses, (dry and wet)
And other hangers-on, to hear
His words, which they should heed and fear:
«If any one of you should lead
«My girls to guess the fleshly deed
«They cannot do; or should one give
«A gesture coarse, or suggestive,
«I swear (I'm not inclined to jokes)
«I'll thrust that tongue so that it chokes
«Right down its throat, if it's female;
«But, if the miscreant is male,
«Some other part I'll use instead.
«Its owner were more happy dead.»

Knowing these threats sincerely meant.
His hearers prudently all bent
Their heads to show obedience,
Humility, subservience,
And any other feeling needed
To prove their sovereign's words were heeded.

Many a wretched woman feared
Her man might mutter, in his beard,
Uncouth remarks. Men, for their parts,
Confessed that truly, in their hearts,
They dearly wanted to... do what?
What wisdom told him they should not,
So making them more furious.
The princesses grew curious.
Just why? And how? The distraught Tsar
Called for a council, as of war;
Told them the truth, from varnish free,
And swore them all to secrecy.

The boyars' brains were on the rack.
Could anything make good the lack
Which these princesses so afflicted?
Then one, too much to speech addicted,
Too old to see silence was better,
Dared his so-long-tied tongue unfetter:
«Your High Omnipotence! My Tsar!
«Forgive me if my musings mar
«Your quietude; or if my tongue
«Seems insolent. When I was young
«I knew a lady.... Where she went
«To, I know not; but she was sent
«To be cured by a witch of what
«She had, or rather hadn't, got.
«Perhaps, O Tsar, should you consult
«That witch, some profit might result.»

«Let her be sent for,» cried the King,
His visage strangely darkening.
(One might have thought he would be pleased
To hear his troubles could be eased.)
«But should she play me false, as I
«Have heard these wicked women try,
«Or what's contracted not deliver,
«I'd be no Tsar should I not give her
«A pyre so big she'd burn from Monday
«At least until the second Sunday.»

Heralds were summoned urgently
And bidden seek unceasingly,
No matter where on earth she dwell,
In Heaven or (more like) in Hell,
That witch whose special magicking
Could make those girls fit for a king.

One year went by, and then a second.
It proved much harder than they'd reckoned,
Though searching without intermission
To find that feminine magician.
But, in the end, one lucky lad
Stumbled upon a clue: he had
(Led by Old Nick, if I guess right)
Entered a forest, black as night;
For there, in that fear-haunted wood,
The sought-for witch's hovel stood.

Boldly his sword-hilt strikes the door,
For he's the King's ambassador.
He enters, sees the seated crone,
Bows low as though before a throne,
Explains the purpose of his mission,
Portrays the princesses' condition,
What they are blessed with, what they lack,
Then begs a cure he may take back.

The witch has known what he will say
Beforehand; croaks now: «Go away;
«Don't slam the door; and don't look back
«If you'd escape the ague's rack
«And other niceties of pain.
«Here, in three days, we'll meet again,
«At dawn precisely. I shall bring
«A present for your precious king».

She spoke no more, but swift began
To follow the time-hallowed plan
That only black-belt witches know
For summoning Diabolo.

Three cinders she procures; then blows
Spell-laden breaths until each glows,
Acquires a face.. a soul as well?
Ready for roasting down in Hell?
She'll sell them for quite modest sums.

The Devil can't resist; he comes
Himself, and on his shoulder brings
A sack, chock-full of all those things
We sinful men so much adore,
In total more than fifty score,
(Whence came they? Ask not. Hear no lies)
Varied in shape and style and size,
Some smooth, some with the crispest curls
Then for the royal girls
The witch selects the forty best
And locks them in a treasure chest,
With golden lock and silver bands,
Which, key and all, she grimly hands
To the dumb herald, saying: «Bring
«This back to your unhappy king».

He gallops till the next dawn glows
On the horizon, dares not doze
Lest ... what? He almost has forgot.
In any case, his horse cannot
Sustain this pace a moment more.
They stop. The herald's soon a-snore.

He wakes; experiences first
A lust for food, and then a thirst
For vodka. All his senses wake:
What feast of passion can them slake?
Fame he desires: will his great Tsar
Acknowledge his achievements are
Exceptional? Promote him Prince,
Or Count at least? Surely so, since
He's bringing home a treasure chest
Filled with .. it was the Tsar's behest;
And these exotic jewels he
Alone has gathered in. «But see,»
He'll humbly whisper to his Tsar,
«I did your will. My wishes are
«To be your unrewarded knave».

Why unrewarded? The thought gave
His mind a jolt; for there inside
The casket were rewards enow
At his disposal. Why not now
Sample their benefits? The king
Would not begrudge a little fling
To settle certainly enough
Whether the witch had done her stuff.

The casket's lid he now inspects.
It's tightly closed. He sniffs, detects
An odour that at once excites
Full forty-fold his appetites.
Swift sought and found, the golden key,
Turned three times, sets the contents free.
As birds they flutter out, then perch
Like chattering choirboys outside church
Waiting until the parson calls
Them in to stand still in their stalls.

Our herald calls them: no success.
He offers sugar: even less.
Crumbs he strews round him: that's not right;
They have a different appetite.
Delightfully aloft they sing
About .. another kind of thing.

At his wit's end, hopeless, he sees
A crone approach. Down on his knees
He falls before the hideous hag,
Whose double chins so wierdly wag,
Whose spine is bent, whose teeth are three,
And prays: «Fair princess, succour me».

He points to the unruly flock
Of birds, whose twitterings still mock
His efforts: «See, they will not come,»
He whines, «I've said Fie-Fee-Fo-Fum.
«Abracadabra, Sesame,
«Spells I once learned at grandma's knee.
«Exert your beauty and your skill;
«Help me my mission to fulfill».

The woman recognises it's
The usual problem, wheezes, spits,
Then says: «You fool. Just show them that.»
He sees what she is pointing at;
Grasps what she means; uncovers it;
Then gasps as every lark and tit
Flies swiftly down in his direction.
Fearful of further insurrection,
He grabs each flier as it lands,
Captures the lot (he has big hands)
And stuffs them back into their box,
Which this time with four turns he locks.

He thanks the crone, remounts his horse
Glad to resume his homeward course.

Arrived at court, without delay
He lets the vizier bear away
The casket with its forty prizes,
Sees how the Tsar himself devises
A covered cage for each, addresses
A note to each of his princesses,
Saying: «Look after them, my dears.
«My hopes fulfilled, now start my fears.»

But first the feasting. Seven days
They celebrate, till all's a haze
Of alcoholic rich repast
And fellowship. Long may it last.
A month of rest is then decreed,
An order all gratefully heed.

The king makes his advisers rich;
Remembers, too, to thank the witch,
Sending her, from his private store,
A skeleton with vipers, and
A recipe to make a grand
Dessert; he calls it Princess Potion.

The herald too receives promotion:
He's guard-in-chief to the princesses;
And, when no other business presses,
Tells them, with demonstrations, how
His labours past bring them joy now.

* * *

Some people ask me why I write
Such nonsense. Well, the answer's quite
Straightforward: it is how I choose
Myself (and others) to amuse.


Beside a lake, in gloomy woods,
Abandoning all worldly goods,
A model of self-abnegation,
The monk sought, for himself, salvation.
He fasted, toiled with hoe and spade,
And, drenched in perspiration, prayed,
Begging with every painful breath
That God would grant him sin-free death.

But He, instead, a vision sent
One summer eve: beside the tent
Of rags and straw and rotting wood,
A smiling naked woman stood.

[A storm had made the forest shake.
Strong winds had lashed the foaming lake
And stirred at last one mighty wave
Which, on retreating left this grave
Statuesque figure on the strand,
Like Venus in another land.]

The lady combed her golden hair,
Then beckoned. But, with eyes a-stare,
The monk stayed immobile; and when
She walked into the lake again,
Watched night-long the all-hiding deep,
Powerless either to pray or sleep.

Day breaks. The monk contrives to pray.
Yet once again it is God's way
To answer indirectly: she
Whose charms lie bare for monks to see
Stands by the once-more foaming shore,
And calls: «Come now. Resist no more.»
Resist no more? Is that temptation?
Or -- what he's prayed for: true salvation?

Three days suffice in fairy tales
For consummation. Here, what ails
The monk is plain: on this third day
His tent is empty. Far away
Upon the water floats a beard,
As though a knowing hand had sheared
A sheep-like monk and made a man.
(What wishing cannot, woman can)
Remember, everyone who prays:
God answers in mysterious ways!

The Golden Cockerel

In country far, and days long gone,
There lived a famous Tsar -- Dadon.
When young, his strength was held in awe
By all his neighbours: he made war
Whenever he declared it right.

With age, he grew less keen to fight,
Desiring his deserved peace:
Struggle should stop; war's clamour cease.

His down-trod neighbours saw their chance,
And armed with dagger, sword and lance,
Attacked his frontiers at will,
Making the old Tsar maintain still
An army of twelve thousand men,
With horses, weaponry, and then
Appoint highly-paid generals
To guard the kingdom's threatened walls.

But, when they watched the west, 'twas sure
The eastern border, less secure
Would be where hostile troops appeared,
The danger greatest where least feared.
Eastward the generals sally forth,
Only to find that now the north
Border is where the danger lies.

Tormented thus, Tsar Dadon cries
Hot tears of rage. He cannot sleep.
O'er land foes stream; then from the deep.
What is life worth, when so assailed?

So, desperate, Dadon availed
Himself of magic, turning to
A sorcerer (and eunuch, too),
Interpreter of omens, stars,
Bird-flights, and such particulars.
The courtier, sent to call the sage,
Implied there'd be a handsome wage.

Arrived at court, the wise old man
Disclosed with confidence his plan:
The golden cockerel he drew
Out from his bag by magic knew
Who would attack, and when, and where,
Enabling generals to prepare.
«Just watch and listen», said the sage.
Dadon responded: «I engage,
«If this be so, to grant as fee
«Whatever you request of me.»

«So, set the cock, as weather-vane
«Upon the highest spire. Remain
«Watchful, attentive; he will show
«You when to arm, and where to go.
«Superior intelligence
«Will always be the best defence.»

And so it proves: whenever threats
Appear, the faithful sentry sets
His crimson crest in that direction
Whence comes th'incipient insurrection.
«Kiri-ku-ku», he cries, «Hear me,
«And rule long years, from worry free.»
Discovered once, and caused to flee,
Then thrice more routed, th'enemy
Lose heart, respect again the will
Of Tsar Dadon, their master still.

A year so passes, then one more.
Dadon expects another score.
One dawn however, courtiers wake
The Tsar, pale-faced, with hearts a-quake:
«The cockerel, Lord, calls you to arms.
«Protect us, holy Tsar, from harms.»

Dadon, half-sleeping, asks: «What? What?
«Have you your manners quite forgot?»
«Forgive us, but the cock», they say,
«Is adamant, brooks no delay.
«The people panic. Only you
«Can their else-mut'nous fears subdue.»

Rousing himself, old Tsar Dadon
Declares he'll send his elder son
Southward, whose army shall repel
The foe which that true cockerel
Has there disclosed. «Now back to bed|
«The enemy's as good as dead.»
The Tsar proclaims, «I too retire.
«Fear not. My spy's still on his spire.»

Wars oft entail a news black-out:
Was there a victory? Or rout?
Who has prevailed? How stands the score
Of dead? And were ours less or more
Than theirs? No word for seven days
The Court's disquietude allays.

Then, on the eighth, the cockerel's
Loud cry the peace again dispels.
This time his crimson comb points north.
Dadon ordains to sally forth
His younger son, leading a force,
So rich in armour, men and horse,
That no known foe could fail to yield,
Such weapons Dadon's troops now wield.

They march; are gone. Silence profound
Envelops them, as though the ground
Had opened, as it did in truth,
To swallow up all Hamlin's youth
When its authorities displayed
Indiff'rence to a promise made.

Ill omen! For another week
The golden cock's sharp close-clamped beak
Swings slowly round, clock-wise; and then
Swings just as slowly back again.
But, when the eighth day dawns, the bird
Crows the alarm. Grim-faced, a third
Army the Tsar himself leads out.
Ahead, a solitary scout,
Follows the blood-red setting sun.
Dadon's last campaign has begun.

Long nights and days the soldiers march:
Frost cramps their feet; then hot winds parch
Their throats. They seek, but find no trace
Of battles, of the bloody chase
Of fugitives, of funeral mounds.
No rallying cries, no trumpet's sounds
Waft to the ears of Tsar Dadon,
As puzzled, tired, he trudges on.

Just when he's topped a mountain pass,
Descending valley-ward,... alas!
What frightful vision lies before
Him: scattered round a silken tent
Lie those two armies Dadon sent
In his defence. Now all are dead;
And his two sons, unhelmeted,
Hold swords plunged in each other's breast,
Hatred in four glazed eyes expressed.

Oh, my dear children! Who has snared
My falcons? What magician dared
Villainy in their hearts to stir,
To make of each a murderer?
His soldiers raise such grievous groan
It seems the very mountains moan.

But then the curtains of the tent
Are flung aside. The hands that rent
Them, diamond-ringed and braceleted,
The stately figure, noble head,
Royalty's redolence express..
A Shamakhanskaya Princess
She is, who sees Dadon, and smiles.
Her beck'ning finger so beguiles
Him that, bewitched, his sons forgot
The Tsar accepts his destined lot:
Her rule, indeed her domination.

He walks, surrendering his nation,
Into the silken-wall'ed tent,
Wherein his next eight nights are spent
In (who can doubt?) those rites of passion
To detail which is out of fashion,
Feasting 'tween-times on everything
Our chefs declare «fit for a king».

At last begins the homeward course.
The maiden, mounted on his horse,
Caresses the still-love-sick Tsar.
The soldiers grumble; yet they are
Eager to tell their waiting friends
(With what imagination lends
Their memories) fantastic stuff
And nonsense. Sure, they've seen enough!

Rumours have reached the capital
Before them. At its drawbridge, all
The people wait in trepidation
To see the ruler of the nation
Approaching with his new consort,
Of whom men variously report
She is a witch, a whore, a queen.
Never before have such things been.

They greet their Tsar. His grave salute
Befits his rank; but his acute
Eye has detected in the crowd
That eunuch-sage whose cockerel's loud
Uproar had saved the threatened state.
«Approach, old man,» Dadon invites,
«I grant whatever gift requites
«You for your golden cockerel
«Whose sentry-duty served so well.»

«I just desire», the wizard says,
«The Shamakhanskaya Princess.
«Come now, my lady, we must leave».
Th'astonished Tsar cannot believe
His ears. «What? what? Take my princess?
«And you a eunuch! I confess
«I never heard a better joke.
«But seriously, when I spoke
«Of paying you right handsomely
«I also meant in reason. See,
«I'll give you half my treasury;
«A lordship; and, if lechery
«Indeed attracts you, all the whores
«Whom you can satisfy».
With force
The wizard answers: «Satisfied
«I'll be only with her as bride.
«Give me the Shamakhan Princess.
«I'll be content with nothing less.»

«Take nothing then,» Tsar Dadon said.
His sword-swipe smote the old man dead.
The crowd was dumbstruck; but the maid,
By this aggression undismayed,
Burst out in laughter, peal on peal,
As though by laughing to reveal
Her full involvement in the plan
To trick and then destroy a man.

The Tsar, though startled, deigns to smile.
Then on, along the Royal Mile.

The crowd begins a careful cheer,
Until a whir of wings they hear
And see a bird with lance-like beak,
A golden bird, with feathers sleek,
Dive at the Tsar, piercing his head.
Dadon groans once, falls, and is dead.

Where's she who was to be his queen?
Vanished, as though she'd never been.

The story's false; but in it lies
Some truth, seen but by inward eyes.