There was once a man and his wife, and they had a son. The father was very poor. He wanted to apprentice his son to a trade so that the boy would be a comfort to his parents, a support to them in old age, and pray for them when they were dead and gone. But what can you do without cash! He trudged round town after town with him. Surely someone would take the lad on; but no, no one would teach him a trade without payment. The father went home, moaned and groaned with his wife, bewailing his poverty, and again took his son to town. No sooner had they arrived, than they met a man who asked the father: "Why so downcast, my man?" "How can I help it," replied the father. "I've been trudging around with my son, but no one will teach him a trade without payment, and I have no money." "Give him to me," said the man. "In three years I will teach him all my skills. And in three years' time, on this very day and at this very hour, you must come and collect him. But mind you are not late. If you arrive on time and recognise your son, you may take him back. But if not, he will stay with me." The father was so overjoyed that he did not ask who the man was, where he lived and what he was proposing to teach his son. He gave him the lad and went away. He returned home happily and told his wife the glad news. But the man he had met was a sorcerer.
Three years passed. The father had forgotten exactly when he had handed over his son, and did not know what to do. The day before the three years were up, his son flew to him in the form of a bird, struck the mound of earth outside and came into the house as a strapping young man. He greeted his father and said that the three years were up tomorrow and he must come and fetch him. Then he told him where to go and how to recognise him. "I am not my master's only apprentice," he said. "There are eleven more youths who must stay with him forever, because their parents did not recognise them. If you do not recognise me, I shall be the twelfth. When you come for me tomorrow, our master will let the twelve of us loose as white doves, alike as peas in a pod, with the same feathers, tail and head. But take heed. We will all fly high up, but I will fly higher than the rest. My master will ask you if you recognise your son. And you must point to the dove that is higher than the rest. After that he will drive out twelve stallions, alike as peas in a pod with their manes all combed on the same side. Take heed as you walk past the stallions, for I shall paw slightly with my right hoof. My master will ask you again if you recognise your son. And you must point to me. After that he will bring out twelve
strapping youths, alike as peas in a pod, with the same height, hair and voices, the same faces and the same dress. As you walk past the youths, take heed, for a little fly will settle on my right cheek. The master will ask you again if you recognise your son. And you must point to me."
So saying he bade farewell to his father and walked out of the house, then struck the mound of earth, turned back into a bird and flew off to his master. In the morning the father got up, made himself ready and went off to fetch his son. He came to the sorcerer. "Well, my friend," said the sorcerer. "I have taught your son all my skills. But if you do not recognise him, he must stay with me for ever." Whereupon he let loose twelve white doves, alike as peas in a pod with the same feathers, tail and head, and asked: "Do you recognise your son?" How could he recognise his son, when they were all alike! He looked hard, and when one dove flew higher than the rest he pointed at it. "I do believe that's him! " "You are right!" said the sorcerer.
Then he let loose twelve stallions, alike as peas in a pod, with their manes all combed on the same side. The father walked round the stallions and took a good look at them, and the sorcerer asked: "Now then, my friend! Do you recognise your son?" "Not yet. Wait a little." When he saw one stallion paw the ground with his right hoof, he pointed at it: "I do believe that's him." "You are right!" The third time out came twelve strapping youths, alike as peas in a pod with the same height, hair and voices, and the same faces as if born of one mother. The father walked past them and noticed nothing, then again and still he noticed nothing, but as he walked past a third time he saw a small fly on the right cheek of one youth and said: "I do believe that's him." "You are right!" So there was nothing for it. The sorcerer gave the old man his son, and the two of them set off home.
As they walked along they saw a fine gentleman riding in a carriage. "I shall turn myself into a dog, father," said the son. "The gentleman will want to buy me. Sell me to him, but keep my collar, or I shall never come back again." So saying he struck the ground and turned into a dog. The fine gentleman saw the father leading a dog and began to bargain for it. It was not so much the dog he wanted, as the smart collar. The gentleman offered a hundred rubles for the dog, but the father wanted three hundred. After a lot of haggling the gentleman bought the dog for two hundred. When the father began to take off the collar, the fine gentleman protested for all he was worth. "I didn't sell the collar," said the father, "I only sold the dog." "Fiddlesticks!" cried the gentleman. "Whoever buys the dog, gets the collar as well." The father thought hard (it was true that you didn't buy a dog without a
collar) and let him have it collar and all. The gentleman sat the dog beside him, and the old man took the money and set off home.
All of a sudden as the gentleman was riding along, a hare suddenly popped out and raced past. "Shall I send the dog after the hare and watch it run like billy-ho?" thought the fine gentleman. No sooner did he let it go, than the dog raced off in the opposite direction straight into the forest. The gentleman waited a long time for it, then went on his way empty-handed. And the dog turned back into the strapping youth. The father trudged home, wondering how he dared show his face there and how to tell the old woman what had happened to their son. Then the son caught him up. "Oh, father," he said. "Why did you sell me with the collar? If we hadn't met a hare, I would never have come back, and that would have been the last you saw of me!"
They reached home and settled down there happily. Time passed, how much I cannot say, and one Sunday the son said to his father: "I shall turn into a bird, father, and you take me to market and sell me. Only don't sell the cage, or I shall never come back again." He struck the ground and turned into a bird. The old man put it in a cage and took it off to sell. Folk gathered round the man quickly and began making offers for the bird: it was such a nice one.
The sorcerer was there too. He recognised the man straightaway and guessed what kind of bird he had in his cage. The bids were high, but he out-bid the lot of them. The man sold him the bird, but would not give him the cage. The sorcerer cajoled and threatened, but the man remained adamant. So he took the bird, wrapped it in a kerchief and went home. "Hey, daughter," he said at home, "I've bought that rascal of ours!" "Where is he then?" The sorcerer unfolded the kerchief with a flourish, but there was no bird. It had flown home ages ago, bless its heart.
Sunday came round again, and the son said to his father: "Today I shall turn into a horse, father. Make sure to sell the horse, but not the bridle, or I shall never come back again." He struck the ground and turned into a horse. His father took it to market to sell. The traders gathered round them. The bids were high, but the sorcerer out-bid the lot of them. The man sold him the horse, but would not hand over the bridle. "How can I lead the horse without it?" asked the sorcerer. "Just let me lead it home, then take the bridle if you wish. I have no need of it." Whereupon the traders turned on the man. That wasn't right. If you sold a horse, you sold the bridle with it. There was nothing for it, so the man handed over the bridle.
The sorcerer led the horse home, put it in the stable and tied it tightly to a ring, pulling its head high. The horse had to stand on its
hind legs, for its front legs could not reach the ground. "Hey, daughter," the sorcerer cried again. "I've bought that rascal of ours like I did before." "Where is he then?" "Standing in the stable." His daughter ran to see. She felt sorry for the young man and decided to loosen the rein. No sooner had she untied it, than the horse leapt out and raced off like the wind. The daughter ran to her father. "Oh, father, forgive me!" she cried. "I loosened the rein, and the horse has run away!"
The sorcerer struck the ground, turned into a wolf and sped off in pursuit. He drew closer and closer. The horse raced down to the river, struck the ground, turned into a little fish and dived into the water. The wolf pursued it in the form of a pike. The little fish swam on through the water until it reached a jetty where some fair maidens were doing their washing. It turned into a gold ring and rolled under the feet of a merchant's daughter. The merchant's daughter picked up the ring and hid it. Then the sorcerer took on human form again. "Give me back my gold ring," he ordered her.
"Take it," said the girl and threw the ring on the ground.
As it struck the ground, there was a shower of grain. The sorcerer turned into a cockerel and began to peck it up. While he was pecking, one grain turned into a hawk, and the cockerel was in trouble. The hawk finished it off in no time. And, prithee, now my tale is told, a mug of ale, if I might make so bold.