Cossacks are mainly East Slavic people, and their language is midway between that of the Russians and the Poles. Even though their physique and religion have tended towards the Russian, still their comparatively isolated lifestyle has helped preserve their folk-tales, keeping them fresh and natural.
The Straw Ox
Once upon a time, there was an old man and an old woman. He worked in the fields as a pitch-burner, while she spun flax at home. So poor were they that once their food was gone, they had nothing left. Then the old woman had an idea. “Husband dear,” she said, “make me a straw ox, and smear it all over with tar.”
“How foolish,” he said. “What good is that sort of an ox?”
“Never you mind,” she said, “just make it. I know what I am about.”
So the man made the ox of straw and smeared it with tar, as his wife had demanded.
The night passed, and at dawn the old woman took her distaff, and drove the straw ox out into the steppe to graze. She sat down behind a hillock and began spinning her flax. Soon she began to doze.
While she was dozing, a bear came lumbering out of the dark wood. Seeing the ox, he rushed up to it. “Who are you? Speak!”
And the ox said, “A three-year-old heifer am I, made of straw and smeared with tar.”
“Oho! Stuffed with straw and smeared with tar, are you?” said the bear. “Give me some of your straw and tar that I may patch up my ragged fur.”
The ox agreed and the bear fell upon it and began to tear away at the tar. The more he tore with his teeth, the more he became stuck. He tried to tug himself free but it was no good. Then the ox dragged him away.
At that the woman awoke and was surprised to find her ox missing. “Alas, old fool that I am! Perchance it has gone home.” Taking up her distaff and spinning board, she hurried home and saw that the ox had dragged the bear up to the fence. She called her husband. “Come and look! The ox has brought us a bear. Come out and kill it.”
The old man rushed out, tore off the bear, tied him up and threw him in the cellar.
Next morning, again at dawn, the old woman took her distaff and drove the ox into the steppe to graze. Sitting by a mound, she began spinning. Yet again, she soon dozed off.
From the dark wood emerged a grey wolf. Spying the ox, he trotted up to it and said, “Who are you? Come, tell me.”
“I am a three-year-old heifer, stuffed with straw and trimmed with tar,” said the ox.
“Oh, trimmed with tar, are you? Give me some of your tar to tar my sides, that the dogs and their sons will not be able to tear me.”
“Take some,” said the ox.
The wolf tried to tear the tar off. He tugged and tore but could get none off. Then he tried to let go, but couldn’t. The ox dragged him away.
When the old woman awoke, there was no sign of her ox. “Maybe it has gone home.” When she got home, she was astonished to see the ox by the fence, this time with a wolf still trying to tug itself free. She ran and told her husband, who threw the wolf in the cellar also.
On the third day, the old woman again drove her ox into the pastures to graze; sitting down, she was soon dozing off.
This time it was a fox that approached the ox and asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m a three-year-old heifer, stuffed with straw and daubed with tar.”
“Then give me some tar to smear my sides with so those dogs cannot tear my hide.”
“Take some,” said the ox.
In the same way that the bear and the wolf had become stuck to the ox, so too did the fox. And when the old woman found the ox with the fox by their home, she called her husband who threw the fox into the cellar. And on the fourth day, in the same way was the hare caught.
The old man sat on a bench by the cellar and began sharpening his knife.
The bear said, “Why are you sharpening your knife?”
“To flay your skin off, that I may make a leather jacket for myself and a pelisse for my old wife.”
“Oh, don’t flay me! Let me go, and I’ll bring you plenty of honey.”
“Very well, see you do it,” said the old man and freed the bear. Then he sat back down on the bench and continued to sharpen his knife.
This time it was the wolf who asked him, “Why are you sharpening your knife?”
“To flay your skin off, that I may make me a warm cap for the winter.”
“Oh, don’t flay me! Let me go, and I’ll bring you a whole herd of sheep.”
“Well, see that you do,” and he freed the wolf. Sitting back down, he went back to sharpening his knife.
The fox asked, “Be so kind as to tell my why you are sharpening your knife?”
“Little foxes have nice skins that do very well for collars and trimmings, and I want to skin you.”
“Oh, don’t do that. Instead let me go and I will bring you hens and geese.”
“Very well, see that you do it.” The old man freed the fox.
Alone now, the hare watched the man sharpen his knife. “Why do you do that?” asked the hare.
“Little hares have soft, warm bodies, which will make me gloves and mittens for the winter.”
“Oh, don’t flay me. Let me go and I’ll bring you kale and cauliflower.”
So the man freed the hare also.
Very early the next morning, before dawn, there was a noise at the door. The old woman woke her husband. “There’s someone scratching at the door, go and see who it is.”
The old man went out and found the bear waiting for him with a hive full of honey. Taking the honey from the bear, he went back to bed. No sooner did he lie down when there was another noise at the door. The old man looked out and saw the wolf driving a whole flock of sheep into the yard. Then came the fox, driving before her geese and hens. Last of all came the hare, bringing cabbage and kale and all manner of good food.
And the old man and old woman were glad. The old man sold the sheep and got so rich that he and his wife needed nothing more. As for the straw-stuffed ox, it stood in the sun until it fell to pieces.
(Pelisse – a woman’s long fitted coat or dress that opens at the front, and is often trimmed with fur.)