How the Devil Blacktail Went Astray

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    Everyone in hell had been noticing for a long while that something odd and suspicious was happening to the devil Blacktail. Whenever he went for strolls, which oftentimes took him to the most remote corners of hell, he smiled happily to himself, and it was regarded as very peculiar that even such an interesting job as stoking the fires under the kettles gave him no joy whatsoever.

    “Well, well,” Blacktail’s father secretly worried, “so that’s the kind of gratitude I get in my old age! What will become of my Blacktail: he never plays cards, nor swears, and he doesn’t even drink pitch. What kind of devil is he? Poor boy, he may even go astray…”

    That was how the old devil complained, shaking his gray head as he watched Blacktai1 strutting through hell and swinging his pitchfork.

    And Blacktail dreamed about earth. Many times he had heard the clever devils, who went there to buy souls, tell that earth was extraordinarily beautifu1--there were no sulphur smells and none of those steaming puddles of pitch which stunk up every corner of hell. So, after the visit of Dr. Scribble, Blacktail was planning to run away to earth: in fact, he had made up his mind to become a respectable citizen of earth.

    Thus one day, when all the devils had fallen asleep (as everyone knows, devils sleep only in the daytime), and only their loud snoring could be heard throughout hell, Blacktail quietly got up from his bed. Holding the end of his tail in his hand so it wouldn't get caught on anything, he carefully slipped out through the door. After sneaking cautiously through the big hall where the boiling kettles softly murmured, he slipped into a narrow tunnel which led to the back door of hell. (You see, the front door leading to old Gardinas Street was always kept locked.) The tunnel, which was so dark even the devil could see nothing, twisted and turned and gradually ascended.

    Finally he reached the rusty doors. On opening them he found himself in a grove of rustling oak trees. Here the brilliant sun was shining, red-throated birds sang in the trees and a rustling blue brook ran in a deep ditch through a field of clover.

    Blacktail was stunned by this beauty and began to scratch his head lazily. He just didn’t know what he should do. After a while he waded across the little brook with his black hooves, and picking flowers while whistling hell’s gayest songs.

    As he roamed like this through the fields, evening came. The devil became hungry and cold and decided to look for a place to spend the night. Not far away, at the edge of the oak grove, smoke was rising from the chimney of a solitary white cottage. The devil went closer. At the door he met an old and honorable professor on his way home from the museum carrying valuable pictures under his arm.

    “Good evening,” said Blacktail, bowing politely since he was a very well-bred devil.

    The old man also said: “Good evening.” But when he saw the stranger better he noticed that he was a devil and a shower of goosebumps spilled down his back.

    “A devil!” he cried and dropped his pictures as he scurried into the house, gasping for breath.

    Blacktail scratched the top of his head, looked around in astonishment and mumbled: “Did I make such a bad impression?”

    Collecting the old man’s scattered pictures, he softly went up to the door of the cottage and knocked.

    “Who’s there?” came frightened voices from inside.

    “Oh, don’t be afraid, it’s nothing to be scared of—only me, a devil,” Blacktail soothed them.

    When they heard this, those behind the door—the professor and his son—shuddered and their hair stood on end.

    “It’s that same demon,” gasped the old professor, and his son took a cudgel and went to the door.

    “What do you want?” he asked in a threatening voice, but he didn’t open the door yet, just in case.

    “I would like to return the pictures,” the devil answered, timidly scratching the door with his fingernail. “And if it’s possible, I would gladly spend the night under your roof because it’s cold out here. Perhaps there’s an empty bed?”

    “Never,” barked the son. “No devil ever slept in our house and no devil ever will! Put the pictures on the steps by the door and get out of here. May the devil take you, go back where you came from. You would mess up our sheets with tar!”

    So the devil, having no success with these first humans of his acquaintance, returned to the woods. In the meantime, it had become completely dark. The moon rose in the sky, as pale as a corpse, and cast an ominous light along the twisted branches. It seemed that the grove was filled with invisible monsters. Somewhere in the cemetery an owl weirdly hooted and a cold shiver darted through the devil's hide.

    "My it’s scary!” he said, overcome by panic. "Good gracious, this place is nothing like hell.”

    And he began to run. He leaped over a fence that stood in his way and crashed through several flower beds. It wasn’t long before he banged smack into a glass wall and suddenly found himself in the city tree nursery.

    “What a perfect place to spend the night, Blacktail said, rubbing his hands together with delight. He opened the narrow doors and squeezed inside. Here it was stuffy and warm, though not quite as comfortable as hell, and the odors of strange plants hung in the air. Contented, the devil lay down in a tub under a large palm tree and fell asleep.

    If those wandering in the paths of the oak grove late that night had been listening closely, they would have heard the frightful snoring of the devil and surely would have run home as quickly as their legs would carry them.

    When Blacktail finally awoke, the sun was already high. The devil lazily stretched and stepped out on the sidewalk without even washing his face. Few people were to be seen on the streets in that district, but before long a black carriage clattered by.

    The devil jumped on and clung to the back where the driver could not see him, and they bounced down the street. After a short ride, they reached a big square crowded with a milling throng. You see, that was market day in Kaunas.

    The devil hopped off the carriage and mingled with the noisy mob which was so colorful that the devil could hardly be detected. He eagerly walked around among the soldiers and the tradesmen, among the old men who smoked great curved pipes and among the young rascals who began to pull him by his tails.

    “All sorts of tramps turn up at the market,” one beggar said to his neighbor. “Apparently not even devils can stay away.”

    “It must be that the fame of our market has reached all the way to hell,” replied the second who tottered along on a wooden leg. “So much greater is the honor for Kaunas, and also for the both of us, the most important beggars of the city.”

    So it went until lunchtime when the devil dropped in at a nearby tavern to get a bite to eat.

    People sat jammed at the long oaken tables, enveloped in smoke, and drank ale and munched and hummed so that it sounded like a bee hive. But as soon as the devil stepped over the threshold everyone immediately fell silent and pinned their frightened eyes on him.

    “A devil, a devil just walked in …” they began to whisper among themselves in terrified voices, pointing their shaking fingers at Blacktail.

    However, the devil just hopped over to the farthest corner of the tavern and sat down at an empty table, after first hanging his tail on the back of the chair.

    “Hey, innkeeper come here!” he shouted, clapping his hairy hands. “Don’t neglect your guests Bring me a roasted frog with bat’s gravy.”

    The innkeeper froze in his tracks and turned white as linen. It’s hard to tell what might have happened next, -- but luckily at that moment the ale house door swung open with a loud bang.

    Two stately policemen came in, sparkling in their gold stars and creaking in their tall and shiny boots.

    “Just in time, sirs!” the innkeeper cried in a trembling voice and ran quickly over to them. “Just in time. Look—over there in the corner the devil himself is sitting, see?” and he nervously mopped his perspiring forehead. “Not even dogs are allowed in this restaurant, and here—just think—the devil himself!”

    “Arrest him! Arrest him!” someone yelled. “He tempts my grandfather to play cards!”

    The room suddenly became filled with a terrific racket as everyone jumped up to accuse the devil.

    The policemen were not in the least amazed, however, for in their lifetimes they had seen many worse criminals. They only nodded and winked at one another. Then they approached the devil, proudly jingling their silver spurs, and each placed a hand on one of the devil’s shoulders.

    The older of the two policemen coughed importantly and said in a thundering voice:

    “In the name of the city police, you are hereby under arrest as a tempter of people! Please come with us to the court.”

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    After such impressive words, the devil just curled up and tried to slip under the table. However, the policeman knew the rules of arrest very well and took his handcuffs out from under his belt and locked the devil’s paws together. Then they proudly led Blacktail, who was still kicking, out of the ale house and into the street. Half of the customers in the restaurant followed after them.

    “How brave our policemen are! The gawkers exclaimed as they stood on the sidewalks. “They finally caught the devil. I always said our policemen are not kicked from stumps.”

    While the passersby were still expressing their amazement, they all reached the city park and soon after the great hall of justice, the columns of which seemed to be supporting heaven itself.

    The policemen took the devil into an immense room that was packed tight with people. Behind a high desk sat the city’s judges, all with gray beards and glistening spectacles which were as big as frying pans so they could see the criminals better.

    “We caught quite a bird today, judge,” the eldest policeman began. “The devil in person!”

    Right away all the spectators in the courtroom started shouting and waving their arms in the air and climbed on their benches in order to see the devil better.

    But when the judge rang his bell the room became as silent as a cemetery.

    “What is your name?” the judge asked in a firm voice.

    “Blacktail…”

    “What is your occupation,” continued the judge, glaring sternly at Blacktail through his large spectacles.

    “I’m a devil…” Blacktail answered, quaking with fear.

    Everyone in the room immediately began to laugh loudly.

    “A devil!” the judge said, becoming angry. “I can see that well enough myself. But what kind of work do you do?”

    “I don’t do anything now, but I used to tend the fires under the kettles.”

    The judge noted everything down with red ink in a thick court record book and then spoke slowly:

    “Now tell me, defendant, what crimes have you committed?”

    At this question about a hundred people in the courtroom promptly jumped to their feet and began to shout and raise their hands.

    “He tempts people!” they all cried in one voice. “He leads them astray!”

    In vain did Blacktail try to justify himself and show that he was innocent. He said that he came to earth for the first time only the day before—and not at all to tempt people—but no one listened to him in all that hubbub.

    The chief judge rang the little bell and began:

    “Because of the unprecedented circumstances of this case, I herewith call a private consultation with the other officers of the court.”

    The council rumbled and rose from their chairs. They all poured into the next room, locked the doors, and made sure the shutters were tightly secured. Then the secret meeting began.

    “We must stick that devil in jail and lock the door with nine locks so he will never escape,” said a judge who had such a bald head that it shone even in the gloom of the council chambers.

    “But the jail is full,” the warden of the prison said, jingling the heavy brass keys that hung from his belt. “Beard the thief was the last one we could squeeze in.”

    “We should let Beard out and lock up the devil,” said another who was so thin one could hardly see him. “But better yet, all should be let out since who would want to sit in jail keeping company with the devil?”

    “But if we free them all, then we’ll have to get locks to lock up our pockets,” another stubbornly opposed the rest, waving his hands energetically. For, you see, Beard the thief has already stolen from him a deck of cards and his pipe and tobacco. “There will be even more trouble. It’s better to et the devil…”

    “Let’s check the in the penalty book and find out what kind of punishments are reserved for devils,” the court scribe modestly suggested. He wrote very beautifully and always carried a quill pen dripping with ink behind his ear.

    That was a good idea. The whole council immediately crowded around the scribe and gazed at the grease-spotted book that here and there showed signs of having been nibbled by mice.

    “Here is the penalty for robbers…” the scribe began to murmur, reverently turning the pages of the book. “Here are the drunkards’ penalties…here are those for card players…” and thus he slowly leafed through the whole book. “That’s strange. There are penalties here for everybody except devils…not a single word about them.”

    “How can that be?” they all asked in one astonished chorus. “Just imagine, no penalty for such a criminal!”

    “There is nothing,” repeated the scribe. “Therefore, if we are to abide by the law we cannot sentence him.”

    “It’s a pity, but we can’t,” the judges confirmed.

    “I herewith proclaim this private consultation concluded and adjourned,” the chief judge announced and jumped up to unlock the door.

    They all entered the noisy courtroom and sat down on their velvet chairs.

    The chief judge took a sip of water, cleared and spoke:

    “The council of this court, consisting of myself and these other equally judicious judges, have solved the case of Blacktail in our private consultation. We have discovered that the law does not provide any penalties for devils, and therefore the council finds the devil Blacktail not guilty.”

    Here he paused and looked over at the other judges with what seemed like an expression of doubt and just for measure added:

    “Besides, there is no room in the jail at this time. Therefore, we have decided that Blacktail should live someplace close by the jail and follow some useful and harmless trade.”

    When he had said that, he sat down and rang the bell. The policeman unlocked the handcuffs that were around Blacktail’s wrists, and Blacktail, bowing to the judges, thanked them for their good hearts and ran happily out of the courtroom so fast that sparks flew from his hooves.

    In the street, where the bright sun was shining and brown dogs ran busily to and fro, the contented devil walked along, wondering how he was to get some work and where he should look for some suitably sooty trade.

    Nearby, on the roof of a one-story house, a chimney sweep sat and vigorously scrubbed the chimney with brush and soap so that bubbles were flying in the air. The devil timidly climbed up the ladder and inquired if he might need a helper.

    “We’ll see what you can do, “ said the chimney sweep as he raised his black face. “Climb up here.”

    The devil grabbed a brush, climbed on the chimney and began to scrub—but the bricks became even blacker than they had been before, so sooty was the devil Blacktail.

    “Just look what you’ve done, you scamp!” shouted the furious chimney sweep. “You’re a good-for-nothing oaf.” And he seized the devil by the horns and threw him into the chimney.

    Blacktail fell with a terrific clatter, enveloped in clouds of soot and sparks, smack into the bakery of Mr. Dough.

    Mr. Dough was the bravest man in all of Kaunas and was not even afraid of the devil.

    “Can I help you?” he asked politely, dusting the flour from his hands. You see, he thought the devil wanted to buy some pastries.

    “I’m looking for a job,” Blacktail modestly whispered. “Maybe you could hire me to stoke the fires. I’m very experienced in that trade.”

    Mr. Dough scratched his balding head and after thinking it over a little hired Blacktail as a baker.

    But not for long! It soon became clear that the bread baked by the devil was not quite as it should be. Regardless of the fact that it always smelled of sulphur, the bread showed signs of being definitely harmful, for the people who ate it began to grow tails.

    “When this sickness had manifested itself,” the medical chronicles for that year acknowledged, “it became necessary to take firm measures and, on the strength of the decision of the council of doctors, Blacktail was relieved of his job.”

    So Blacktail was kicked out of the bakery by order of the mayor of the city.

    He walked slowly along the docks and his heart was full of a great sorrow.

    “What good is a miserable wretch like me,” he lamented. “There is no place for me in this world. Oh, what a misfortune! Why did I have to be born a devil!”

    He was still wailing like this when he reached the Church of the Carmelites. The peaceful droning of the pipe organ and their clear odor of incense flooded from the open doors. The amazed devil stopped and stared for a long time at the wondrous glimmering of the wax candles and at the dim pictures in golden frames that he had never seen.

    He was filled with an overpowering curiosity and he tried to sneak inside, but just then the old organist came out and began to scold him.

    “And what will the devils do next?” he angrily shouted. “To think the villains are already starting to push their way into the church.”

    At that moment the gray-haired priest, who was famous for his wisdom, because he was never seen without a thick breviary under his arm, passed by.

    When he saw Blacktail, he stopped and raised a finger.

    “Wait,” he said, a thought suddenly occurring to him, “I shall take the devil into my service.”
And he went on to make this offer to the devil:

    “Would you be so kind as to accept from me the post of cemetery watchman?”

    Blacktail was so pleased that he would have leaped up into the air (if only his hooves had not been so heavy) and immediately accepted the job. Tears of joy ran down his sooty face.

    So Blacktail had finally found an occupation and, as it happened, it was close by the jail, just as the chief had stipulated.

    His living quarters were in a run-down shack located in a dark corner of the cemetery where all sorts of drunkards and thieves and other parishioners, who had not pursued the path of virtue during their lives, were buried. The devil could often be seen there, spade in hand, tending the grave plots, and there has never been a cemetery watchman better cut out for the job than this one. Even when they were still a long way off people crossed to the other side of the street when they neared the graveyard guarded by the devil.

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    One evening two sly drunkards staggered into the cemetery intending to pay a visit to one of their companions. Boisterous, singing and waving their bottles, they neared his grave bragging how they would a bottle to his health. But their gay song suddenly ended and their hair stood on end, for around their old friend’s grave a horrible devil was intently digging away while eerily waving his long tail.

    “Run, it’s a devil!” they screamed and, dropping their bottles, they ran out of the cemetery so fast they were in the park on the other side of the city before they knew it.

    From that time on, you could never find a single drunkard left in the taverns, even on the biggest holidays. They all became decent citizens and upstanding members of the community.

    The devil’s fame spread through the whole city. Every Sunday large crowds of people gathered at the ‘church of the Carmelites—you see, the devil never worked on Sunday, but instead strutted around the churchyard neatly combed. . Even the biggest atheists, who otherwise never came, dropped by the church: for everyone wanted to get a look at the devil. People also drove in from the outlying districts and surrounding towns so that the street was so jammed with carriages it was impossible for anyone to push his way through.

    “Many were the unbelievers who were converted in our town,” it was recorded in the chronicles of Kaunas for that year, “when they saw the devil with their own eyes. Then everybody had to believe in the devil and hell. People soon became better: the drunkards stopped drinking, the robbers went to the woods only to pick mushrooms and berries, and the card players publicly burned their cards in the city square. Peace reigned in the city of Kaunas, and virtue flourished on every hand.”

    The city’s fame finally reached as far as hell. It should be noted that the news was quite a blow to the devils.

    “Who would have believed it!” Blacktail’s father sadly repeated to himself over and over again as he sat on a barrel of tar. “Imagine my son in the service of the church! It’s incredible that people are getting better because of Blacktail. It’s a great shame, I say. Where has the old power of hell gone?”

    A general meeting of devils was immediately called. The father publicly denounced his prodigal son, and, after putting it to a secret vote, the devils decided to strike the name of Blacktail from the roll.

    So several years passed.

    One day the wise pastor received a letter from St. Peter. (That strangely written letter can still be read today in the rectory office in the Church of the Carmelites.)

    “Dear Pastor,” Saint Peter wrote, “I have learned from the deceased people coming up to heaven that a devil is employed in your service. That is a harmful situation and it must be remedied at once, for who has ever heard of hiring a devil! And who has ever heard of people going to church, not to listen to the words of the righteous priest, but to see a frightening devil? Therefore, boot him out as fast as you can and let him find another occupation that would better suit its black nature.”

    Now the devil was without a job—and it had seemed so permanent.

    Forsaken by everyone, he slowly plodded along, dejected and crying bitter tears.

    But luckily for him, the two beggars (the same ones we found before at the market) limped past him and the one with the wooden legs shouted to Blacktail:

    “What has happened, comrade, that makes you cry so bitterly? Look, you’re making the sidewalk all black with your inky tears. Tell me what is burdening your heart so much.”

    They all sat down on a small bench in the shade of a jasmine bush and both beggars listened to the devil relate his grievous misfortunes.

    “There’s nothing to worry about,” the older beggar, who was the most tattered, consoled Blacktail. “We are miserable wretches just like you. Stick with us and you won’t perish, never fear. Come on along!”

    The beggars took the devil by the arms and led him to the shelter for homeless wayfarers. Every corner was filled with beggars, tramps, the unemployed, and other vagabonds of the world.

    “Your rightful place is here with us,” the beggars said proudly. “Here is your true refuge. There’s no reason why you should roam in the inhospitable world.”

    From that day on you could find the devil in the poorhouse, skulking around in the yard without anything to do and keeping company with ne’er-do-wells and hobos. This society was not much good, and, naturally, before long it led him astray.

    He began to drink, learned how to curse and spent long nights in a secluded tavern playing cards with thieves and cheats. And gradually he went so far astray that you might have feared, for all you knew, that when he died he would end up in hell.

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Daktaras Kripstukas Pragare (Doctor Scribble in Hell) - copyright Julius Kaupas, Dalia Kaupiene Auguniene
English translation copyright Aldona and Robert Page