Written during road trip to Poland driving musical instruments for Exeter Children’s Orchestra.
Long ago, before you or your grandmother were born, before Poland was Poland and before the Slavs settled by the banks of the River Vistula, there lived a dragon.
Out of the egg a thousand years or more, alone and aloof it flew from den to river, from den to forest, from den to mountain to kill and feast. Bear and wolf, lynx and boar, deer and goat, beaver, otter, bird, snake and fish were gripped, torn, crushed, ripped and gorged upon. Hides and hooves, scales and tails, fur, tusks, flesh and bone filled the belly of the beast.
And when to eat was not enough, to salve the hunger of loneliness, it lay in the darkness of its lair curled snout to tail and slept.
Creatures of river and forest and mountain no longer feared the dragon in the cave in the hill.
For a hundred years it did not stir.
And in this time, dribs and drabs of men and women with sons and daughters arrived by the river to fish and farm, to tame the land and build a town. And all was well, as well could be.
The first to go? Perhaps a dog who sniffed a scent like no other. Whose nose led him to the cave in the hill by the bend in the river and whose back was snapped because of a bark it could not help.
However it was done, done it was.
Awake, angry and hungry the dragon stalked the land once more.
Herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and shepherds and children went missing.
Some who saw the dragon said it was a grey snake on legs, the size of three bulls with the head of a horse. Others said it was no bigger than a donkey. One man said one wing was larger than the other and it was unable to fly but hopped and skipped and jumped upon its prey. Another man told him to shut up and drown himself in a lake of vodka.
King Krak ordered his bravest to fight the dragon and many tried. Many tried and all failed. The skin of the dragon was too tough for arrows. Spears and lances were pinpricks to the beast. Death by fire was the reward for many would-be heroes. Those who escaped and survived wore their tooth and claw scars proudly. By and by, to keep the beast at bay and to prevent surprise attacks, each day a young maiden was left outside the dragon’s den.
But soon there was only one teenage girl left and the next morning Krak would sacrifice his own daughter.
Wanda the fair, Wanda the jewel, Wanda the beautiful. Her eyes so deep and blue, many a young man had dived headfirst into them. Her skin so smooth, those who gazed at her felt they were tobogganing down a glass mountain. Her hair so golden a field of ripe barley would bow before her as she passed by.
It was then a humble fellow stepped forward.
Cobblers. Cobblers are those whose trade it is to shoe us. To cover our bare feet in leather.
And what a fine cobbler there was in the town. His name, Skuba. Skuba had no sword, no lance, no shield, no horse. But he had scissors for cutting, an awl for threading and hemp for stitching. And he went to the king and he asked and he was given. A cartload of sheepskins, a trough of fat, a barrel of tar and a bucket of sulphur.
All night long he stitched and stuffed and smeared until by dawn, a huge sheep the size of a giant bear was dragged by the king’s men and left outside the dragon’s den.
When the dragon stirred and slipped out of its lair, he sniffed the crystal air of a frosty morning and spied his breakfast lying as if asleep. With a blast of flame and a roar that made the trees run and hide, he lunged forwards and with a gulp that sounded like a boulder thrown into a lake swallowed his breakfast whole.
Satisfied at the size of his meal which was much more filling than a teenage girl, he dove into the river for his morning swim. But as you and I know, it’s not a good idea to swim with a full stomach especially if there’s a bucket of sulphur inside you.
As he swam he drank, and as he drank the river water met the sulphur and it began to crackle,smoke and flame and soon there was a furnace deep within.
He shot out of the water and writhed outside his lair.
His insides were baking. His scales flaking. His belly was churning. His body burning.
SIZZLE! WHIZZ! BANG! POP!
The dragon exploded.
Bones shot in all directions. Burning innards plunged like meteors into the river. Scales fell like black hailstones to the ground.
But his hide – his rough,tough skin – plummeted like a punctured parachute and flopped down to land outside the dragon’s lair.
The people of the town cheered Skuba the clever cobbler. They drank vodka in his honour.They carried him high upon their shoulders. They drank vodka. They sang songs. They drank more vodka.
And when they woke the next morning they held their sore heads in their hands and tried to remember what happened yesterday.
The hammering in their heads was echoed by a hammering sound coming from a nearby building.
It was Skuba, up early and making his first pair of shoes of the day.
These shoes were like none seen before. He was making them for his bride to be – Wanda the beautiful.
Can you guess what they were made of?
Of course you can.
They may have been the first pair of shoes cobbled that morning but they were not the last.
And the shoes made that day were so long lasting that if you visit Poland and stand in the square of that ancient town beside the River Vistula and stare at the feet of passers-by, it won’t be long before you spot a pair of dragon skin shoes worn by a descendent of someone long ago who knew Skuba, the clever cobbler of Krakow.
The Dragon of Krakow and the Clever Cobbler