'The Singing Snake'



Editor's note: This retelling of an Australian folktale focuses on a singing contest among the animals.

Long ago, on a great island in the middle of the ocean, there lived a collection of creatures found nowhere else in the world. They all chattered at once, and their voices were harsh and loud. The island was the noisiest place you could imagine.

Tired of the raucous sounds, Old Man said he would make a musical instrument in honor of the creature who developed the most beautiful singing voice.

A large, colorful snake listened to Old Man and thought about his chances. He wanted to win the contest, but he knew that he had only an average singing voice. It would never be judged the best. He listened carefully to the other contestants.

"Lark has the most beautiful voice," Snake finally decided.

"Hmmm." He was getting an idea.

"If I swallowed Lark whole and was careful not to harm her, and held her just at the back of my throat, then I'm sure I could borrow her voice for the song festival."

Once Snake had made up his mind, he quickly swallowed Lark. She began to sing in protest, but her song appeared to be coming from Snake.

This will work perfectly, thought Snake.

He hastened off to the festival.

When he encountered another animal along the way, Snake would smile, taking care that his teeth blocked Lark's escape.

When Snake smiled, the light shone through his teeth, and Lark began to sing.

Everyone thought Snake was singing, and they marveled at his magnificent voice.

"Your voice is certainly much improved from last year," said Platypus.

"I wish I had a voice as enchanting as Snake's," whined Dingo.

Snake smiled serenely and continued on his way. As he approached the festival, he met more and more creatures. They all expressed amazement at his brilliant voice.

The song festival was ready to begin.

He reared himself up, held his head in the air, and smiled. The sunlight struck Lark, and she began to sing.

Her song was so sad and so beautiful that every animal was soon in tears. Even Crocodile's tears were real.

The other contestants agreed that Snake's song was so fine and his voice so perfect that he should win the contest.

Others did not even bother to compete.

Old Man agreed and named Snake the winner of the contest. "I will go now," he said, "and make my musical instrument in Snake's shape."

After Old Man had gone, the animals gathered around Snake. "Please, Snake, sing us an encore," they begged.

Snake smiled again. But this time, instead of singing, Lark began to scratch at Snake's throat with her little feet. Scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch.

Snake's cheeks bulged out as he tried not to cough. His eyes bulged, too. A faint sound like a hiss came from his mouth.

Finally Snake could stand it no longer. With a loud hack, he coughed, and his mouth opened wide. Lark quickly flew to the safety of a tree branch and began to sing a glorious song of freedom.

All the creatures were so delighted with Lark's song that they were distracted for a moment. Snake quickly hid in another tree, pretending he was a branch.

When Lark's song was finished, the creatures noticed that Snake had disappeared. They were very angry. "He cheated us," they said. "He was horrible to Lark."

"We should never speak to him again," said Koala.

"Nor trust him," added Flying Squirrel.

Old Man returned with his instrument.

"It looks like you, Snake," Old Man said, showing Snake the great horn that he had made. "The sound isn't as sweet as your singing, but I like it, and it will go well with your voice." Old Man blew into the strange instrument. A low, rich humming filled the air.

Snake said nothing and slithered off into the tall grass in shame.

No one ever did speak to Snake again. After a while he forgot how to speak himself. All he could make was a hissing sound, as if something were going "scratch, scratch -- scratch, scratch" in his throat.

Reprinted from THE SINGING SNAKE by Stefan Czernecki and Timothy Rhodes. Copyright (c) 1993 by Stefan Czernecki and Timothy Rhodes; illustrations copyright (c) 1993 by Stefan Czernecki. Published by Hyperion Books for Children.

Pub Date: 07/28/99

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