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"Sredni Vashtar" is a short story written by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) between 1900 and 1911 and initially published in his book The Chronicles of Clovis. It has been adapted for opera, film, radio and television.
The story concerns an unhealthy ten-year-old boy named Conradin, who lives with his strict cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp. Conradin rebels against her and invents a new religion for himself, which centres on idolising a polecat-ferret he calls Sredni Vashtar; he imagines Sredni Vashtar to be a vengeful, merciless god. Conradin keeps the ferret hidden in a cage in the garden shed, and worships the idol in secret. The story comes to a climax when his cousin sets out to discover his god.
The story begins with a sickly 10-year old boy named Conradin, who possesses a vast imagination that not only keeps him strong enough to survive, but also serves as his escape from the real world, made up primarily of his patronising cousin, Mrs De Ropp ("she represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real..."). Conradin despises Mrs De Ropp, who takes delight in telling him off "for his own good". It is implied that Mrs De Ropp also dislikes Conradin, though she won't confess this to herself.
Rebelling against her oppressive care, Conradin secretly cares for two animals in his unused garden shed: a Houdan hen, which he adores, and a polecat-ferret, which he fears and keeps locked in a hutch. Gradually, Conradin begins to venerate the ferret as a god, imaginatively naming it Sredni Vashtar. He worships the ferret weekly ("every Thursday"), bringing it red flowers and scarlet berries, and stolen nutmeg for special occasions, such as Mrs De Ropp having a toothache.
After a while, Mrs De Ropp grows concerned over Conradin's visits to the shed. She discovers the Houdan hen, and sells it. She announces the news of the sold hen to Conradin, expecting a protest. To her surprise, Conradin does not respond, but instead changes his worshipping rituals and asks an unnamed boon of his god: "Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar." The thing is never made clear, but Conradin continues to ask bitterly each night in his bedroom and every evening in the shed.
When Conradin's visits to the shed do not cease, Mrs De Ropp investigates further, and discovers the locked hutch where Sredni Vashtar dwells. Suspecting guinea pigs, she ransacks his room and finds the key, and forbids Conradin to go out of the house. She goes to the shed to unlock the hutch. While she is gone, Conradin slowly begins to accept defeat, knowing that his cousin will come out of the shed in triumph, because he has always known that Sredni Vashtar is not real. But when Mrs De Ropp fails to come out after some time, Conradin begins to chant a song of victory:
"Sredni Vashtar went forth,
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful."
Conradin continues to chant until the ferret emerges from the shed, with dark wet stains around its jaws and throat. It ventures into the garden, never to return. A sour-faced maid announces tea and asks for Mrs De Ropp; Conradin calmly tells her that she has gone into the shed, and makes himself a piece of buttered toast. As he enjoys his toast, there are screams from the maid, calls for help from the kitchen staff, and later the sound of something heavy being dragged into the house. As voices discuss fervently who should break the news to the boy, Conradin calmly makes himself another piece of toast.
"Sredni Vashtar" has been adapted as a chamber opera three times. In 1988 the composer Robert Steadman and the author Richard Adams wrote the 75-minute Sredni Vashtar. In 1996 Cuban-born composer Jorge Martin and librettist Andrew Joffe with the American Chamber Orchestra produced Beast and Superbeast, a group of four chamber operas based on stories by Saki, including "Sredni Vashtar". Martin also composed a Piano Fantasy on Sredni Vashtar  In 2010 the story was again adapted by Nicholas Pavkovic and Jim Coughenour and performed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
This story was adapted for American television and aired on a ghost anthology series called Great Ghost Tales on August 24, 1961. "Sredni Vashtar" was the basis of the 1979 horror film The Orphan, also known as Friday the 13th: The Orphan, by the director John Ballard. In 1981, the short film Sredni Vashtar by British director Andrew Birkin won a BAFTA award and was nominated for an Oscar. In 2003 Angela M. Murray produced a version of the story in the Tartan Shorts series for the BBC, set in Scotland and including shadow puppetry. "Sredni Vashtar" was further adapted with two other Saki stories for a 2007 broadcast on BBC4 titled Who Killed Mrs De Ropp?
The story also inspired film directors of the Czech Republic three times. Vaclav Bedrich made a cartoon film based on it in 1980. Martin Faltyn's 1981 graduation film from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography is an adaptation of "Sredni Vashtar". In 1995, Pavel Marek adapted the story into his graduation film from FAMU.
"Sredni Vashtar" was adapted as a single narrative song for the musical Saki Shorts by John Gould and Dominic McChesney. The one serious item in the show, it stays faithful to the story with the addition of a twist in the last line that hints it is being sung by (the adult) Conradin himself.
References in popular culture
Jean Rhys references the tale in the eponymous story of her 1976 collection of short stories, Sleep It Off Lady, in which the protagonist, Miss Verney, feels terrorized by a large rat hiding in her garden shed; at one point calling out aloud, "Come out, come out, Shredni [sic] Vashtar, the beautiful.".