Vasalissa The Brave
IN a Tsardom far, far away, tucked into a forest, behind a river, beyond a great Meadow, over the High Hills, through a green valley and halfway to the feet of the Blue Blue Mountains there once lived a kind and wealthy merchant. To trade his way out he had to pass three times nine realms, each larger than a day is wide, plus one or two or sometimes even three half-a-day sized realms, depending on the season, the price of saltpetre and the weather. To trade his way home, he had to do the same thing backwards and wearing high heels, which was very time consuming and difficult.
Naturally, since he travelled so far, wide, and handsome, he did not get to spend a lot of time at home with his wife. Though he had been married twelve years, in all that time no child had blessed their union. At long last, in the thirteenth year of their marriage, a lusty girlchild was born to the merchant and his wife. How they rejoiced! The merchant, having travelled so far and traded so well that he was now rich, was happy to stay at home for eight years enjoying the company of his wife and daughter every day, winter and summer, spring, and fall and all the other seasons too, including the fearsome syrup monsoon which comes around once in a blue moon, but not regular.
From her cradle, this much loved daughter was called Vasalissa the Brave. She was not afraid of the cat when it stared at her with green shining eyes, but only laughed. She was not afraid of the spider that descended on a long silken thread, but only fascinated. She loved creatures and plants and running and hopping and singing and dancing and shouting with the other children in the village.
When the little girl was eight years old her mother fell ill, and before many days it was plain to be seen that she must die. So she called Vasalissa to her side, and told her the sad tidings, for she did not wish to conceal the truth from her only child. When they had shed tears together, Vasalissa's mother took a tiny wooden doll from under the blanket of the bed, put it into her hands and said:
"My dear, listen now to my words and remember always that I wish you well, and watch over you even from beyond the grave. With my last strength, I place in your care this precious doll. There is no other like it in the whole world. Carry it always about with thee in thy pocket and never show it to anyone. When evil threatens thee or sorrow befalls thee, go into a corner, take it from thy pocket and give it something to eat and drink. It will eat and drink a little, and then thou mayest tell it thy trouble and ask its advice. It will tell thee how to act in thy time of need."
So saying, she kissed her daughter on the forehead, blessed her, and soon after died.
Vasalissa the Brave needed all her inborn courage to face the loss of her dear mother. That night, when the dark of night fell, her sorrow was so deep that she lay in her bed and wept and did not sleep. At length she bethought herself of the doll in her pocket. She rose, crept into the front room quietly so as not to wake her father or the servants, and pinched off a tiny bit of bread from the loaf and filled a thimble full of kvass; these she offered to the doll, saying:
"Here, Blossom Blessing (for that was the name she thought to give the doll) here is a morsel for thee to eat and drink. Refresh yourself, if you please, and pray listen to my grief. My dear mother is dead and I am lonely for her."
Then the doll's eyes began to shine like fireflies, and suddenly it became alive. It ate the small pinch of bread and drank dry the thimbleful of kvass. When Blossom Blessing was done with the meal, it said:
"Don't weep, Brave Vasalissa. Grief is worst at night. Lie down, shut thine eyes, rock thyself from side to side and go to sleep. The morning is brighter than the evening."
So Vasalissa the Brave lay down, rocked herself and went to sleep. Next day her grieving was not so deep and her tears were less bitter.
Now after the death of his wife, the merchant sorrowed for many days as was right, but at the end of that time he began to desire to marry again and to look about him for a suitable wife. This was not difficult to find, for he had a fine house, with a stable of swift horses, besides being a good man who gave much to the poor. Of all the women he saw, however, the one who, to his mind, suited him best of all, was a widow of about his own age with two daughters of her own, and she, he thought, besides being a good housekeeper, would be a kind foster mother to his brave Vasalissa.
So the merchant married the widow and brought her home as his wife, but the little girl soon found that her foster mother was very far from being what her father had thought. She was a cold, cruel woman, who had desired the merchant for the sake of his wealth, and had no love for his daughter.
Vasalissa the Brave was sturdy at heart, healthy and strong. She sang true notes and when she was not sunk in grief, she had a hearty laugh. But her stepmother's daughters were sickly, pale, and languid. They envied Vasalissa her fine complexion and healthy appetite. They themselves required all sorts of special foods and dainty tidbits of rare and costly meats, such as lark's tongues and elephant's earlobes. They had no love for running about in the free air and the sunshine, but called it common to behave so. They made the servants do their own share of the weeding and mending and then spoke sharply to them when the regular chores went undone. By these unreasonable demands and their sneering, haughty ways, they vexed the maids and gardeners and even drove the cook away, which was too bad of them.
Now, instead of eating plain, wholesome food at home, they went out into the village and ate ices and cow steak and goat chops and fried pork loin and never laid a tooth on a bite of salad. They spent all their step-papa's money on white bread and candies and wheedled at him for more. Thus they obliged him at his time of life to go out on long trading journeys once more.
When he was gone, they gave Vasalissa every errand to run and outdoor tasks to perform, hoping that the toil might make her thin and stooped, that the sun should burn her face brown and the wind make it coarse as shoe leather. They pinched her arms and spoke to her so cruelly as to leave few joys in life for her.
But all this Vasalissa the Brave endured without complaint. Her stepmother and the two daughters grew always thinner and uglier, in spite of the fact that they had no hard tasks to do, never went out in cold or rain, and sat always with their arms folded like ladies of a Court. But Vasalissa had cheeks like blood and milk and grew every day more and more handsome.
Now the reason for this was the doll, without whose help even Brave Vasalissa could never have managed all the work that was laid upon her. Each night, when everyone else was sound asleep, she would get up from her bed, take the doll into a closet, lock the door, give it a morsel to eat and a drop to drink, and say: "Here, Blossom Blessing! Here is a fine baked bean in carmelized tomato sauce and an acorn capful of blackberry cordial. Take, eat, drink if you please, and pray listen to my grief. I live in my father's house, but my spiteful stepmother wishes to drive me out of the wide green world. Tell me! How shall I behave, and what shall I do?"
Then the doll's eyes shone like glow-worms, and it became alive. It ate the baked bean with relish and lapped up the blackberry cordial, and then it comforted her and told her how to act.
While Vasalissa slept, it did all her step-sisters' work for the next day, so that she herself had only to keep up with her own just share. There was weeding the herb garden in the morning, watering the cabbages-in-clover at evening, drawing up well water at noon and the stoves to heat just right three times a day. Since the doll did the extra labor, Vasalissa had time for a nap or to rest in the shade and gather wildflowers. Besides this, the doll told her how to make an herbal ointment out of pennyroyal and sourwood and something else I don't recall but it warded off sunburn. All the joy in Vasalissa's life came to her through Blossom Blessing the doll that she always carried in her pocket.
Years passed, till Vasalissa grew up and became of an age when it is good to marry. All the young men in the village, high and low, rich and poor, asked her stepmother for her hand. Not one inquired after the health and comfort of her own two daughters. They saw the daughters forever lounging about in cafés eating costly ices, dressed in o'erfine raiment, and buying gilt-embroidered shoes. Besides the former servants had told the world how lazy and sharp-tongued they were, never lifting a hand to needle, distaff nor loom, much less weeding and watering and minding the stoves.
That Vasalissa was sought after by young men while her own daughters were passed over angered their mother still more against Vasalissa; she answered every gallant who came with the same words: "Never shall the younger be wed before the older ones!" and each time, when she had let a suitor out of the door, she would vent her anger and hatred by beating her stepdaughter.
Bravely, Vasalissa bore this ill treatment, helped by the doll who told her where to find arnica for her bruises and calendula to take away the sting of open wounds. Nevertheless, she longed for her father to return from his travels abroad. But in his absence, she whistled up some extra courage and still sang once in a while, though mournfully, and the catbirds sang with her.
Now there came a letter from her father. He was bound for a land more distant than he had ever been to. A great opportunity had come for him to cross the sea and trade for exotic spices that would make them all ten times richer than before. He expected to be gone for many months longer than usual. He bade his wife to take good care of the three girls and sent a jewelled brooch for each of them to wear or sell in case of an emergency. Vasalissa said a prayer each day for his safe journey and safe return.
But no sooner was the letter folded up than his stepdaughters sold their jewels and spent all the money on super-rich delicacies, including Black Sea caviar, Luxembourg snails, and Gulf shrimp. His wife sold his house, packed all his goods and moved with them to another dwelling far from the town, in a gloomy neighborhood on the edge of a wild forest. Here every day, while her two daughters were idling indoors, the merchant's wife would send Vasalissa on one errand or other into the forest, either to find a branch of a certain rare bush or to bring her flowers or berries.
Now deep in this forest, as the stepmother well knew, there was a green lawn and on the lawn stood a small smelly hut on huge scaly hens' legs, where Baba Yaga dwelt. She lived all alone and none dared go near the hut, for she ate people as people eat chickens. The merchant's wife sent Vasalissa into the forest each day, hoping she might meet the old grannywitch and be devoured; but always the girl came home safe and sound, because Blossom Blessing showed her where the bush, the flowers, the berries grew, and did not let her go near the odoriferous hut that stood on giant yellow hens' legs. And each time the stepmother hated her more and more because she came to no harm.
One autumn evening the merchant's wife called the three girls to her and gave them each a task. One of her daughters she bade make a piece of lace, the other to knit a pair of hose, and to Vasalissa she gave a basket of flax to be spun. She bade each finish a certain amount. Then she put out all the fires in the house, leaving only a single candle lighted in the room where the three girls worked, and she herself went to sleep.
They worked an hour, they worked two hours, they worked three hours, when one of the elder daughters took up the tongs to straighten the wick of the candle. She pretended to do this awkwardly (as her mother had bidden her) and put the candle out, as if by accident.
"What are we to do now?" asked her sister. "The fires are all out, there is no other light in all the house, and our tasks are not done."
"We must go and fetch fire," said the first. "The only house near is a hut in the forest, where Baba Yaga lives. One of us must go and borrow fire from her."
"I have enough light from my steel pins," said the one who was making the lace, "and I will not go."
"And I have plenty of light from my silver needles," said the other, who was knitting the hose, "and I will not go.”
"Thou, Vasalissa," they both said, "shalt go and fetch the fire, for thou hast neither steel pins nor silver needles and cannot see to spin thy flax!" They both rose up, pushed Vasalissa out of the house and locked the door, crying:
"Thou shalt not come in till thou hast fetched the fire."
Vasalissa sat down on the doorstep, took the doll from one pocket and from another a crumbly sliver of cheese and a folded wax paper cup holding a cold tea bag she had saved from the pot. “Here, Blossom Blessing, refresh thyself if you please and hear of my fear and sorrow. I must go to the hut of Baba Yaga in the dark forest to borrow some fire and I expect she will eat me. How shall I behave and what shall I do?"
Then the doll's eyes shone like two stars and it became alive. It ate the cheese and squeezed tea out of the cold teabag and seemed very much refreshed and cheerful. It said: "Be brave as thy name Vasalissa. Go where thou hast been sent. While I am with thee no harm shall come to thee from Baba Yaga."
So Vasalissa put the doll back into her pocket and started out into the dark, wild forest.
Whether she walked a short way or a long way the telling is easy, but the journey was not. The wood was very dark, and she needed all her courage not to flee when she heard the sound of a horse's hoofs and a man on horseback galloped past her. He was dressed all in white, the horse under him was milk-white and the harness was white. She waited till he passed, and then morning twilight dawned.
She went a little further and again she heard the sound of a horse's hoofs and there came another man on horseback galloping past her. He was dressed all in red, and the horse under him was blood-red and its harness was red. She waited till he passed and then the sun rose.
That whole day Vasalissa walked, for she had lost her way. She could find no path at all in the dark wood and she had no food to set before the little doll to make it alive.
But at evening she came all at once to the green lawn where the foul, moldy, lichen-shaggy hut stood on its flaky hens' legs. The legs saw Vasalissa and tried to kick her, but she stood without the gate where they could not reach so far. The wall around the hut was made of human bones and on its top were skulls. There was a gate in the wall, whose hinges were the bones of human feet and whose locks were jaw-bones set with sharp teeth. The bones began to move and clack themselves together in a horrid rhythm. Vasalissa stood straight and stiff as a carrot root, with only her toes curling in horror.
But she was brave and did not turn back. After a moment more, the drumming bones reminded her of the funeral rattles when her mother died and she recollected her mother's last words: how she wished Vasalissa well and would watch over her even from beyond the grave. So Vasalissa the Brave grew calm and peaceful at heart, if a little sad. Poor bones, she thought, so must we all look someday.
The bones clacked on for a time, but ever more slowly and mournfully, until they fell silent and lay quiescent. No one but Vasalissa the Brave had ever pitied them before! They simply didn't know where to look for embarrassment.
As Vasalissa bowed her head and said a prayer for the quiet rest of the bones, a third man on horseback came galloping up. His face was black, he was dressed all in black, the horse he rode was anthracite-black. He galloped up to the gate of the hut and disappeared there as if he had sunk through the ground. Full night fell and the woods went dark.
But it was not dark on the green lawn, for instantly the eyeholes of all the skulls on the wall were filled with greeny lights and shone till the place was as bright as day. Vasalissa stared back at them as she had stared back at the cat who looked at her in her cradle with shining green eyes, and she laughed.
The skulls grinned back at her and worked their jaws and echoed her laugh in the most frightful way. No one but Vasalissa the Brave had ever laughed at the DeadHeads before. Though what the big joke was, I am sure I do not know.
Then suddenly the wood filled with a terrible noise; trees groaned, branches creaked, dry leaves chattered and rustled and flew up from underfoot. Whoosh! Came the Baba Yaga flying from the forest. She rode inside a great iron mortar and drove it with the pestle. With her other hand she swept away the trail behind her with a great, rat-eaten, dirty kitchen broom.
She rode up to the gate, stopped, and cried:
“Little Hut, brittle Hut! Stand as thy maker placed thee! Back to the forest, now, come front to face me!”
And the little hut turned facing her and stood still. Then smelling all around her, she cried:
"Foo! Foo! I smell a smell that is Russian. Who is here?"
Vasalissa the Brave, remembering how her mother had taught her to be courteous to her elders came forth promptly and bowed very low.
"It is only Vasalissa, grandmother. My stepmother's daughters sent me to thee to borrow some fire."
"Well," said the old witch, "I know them. But if I give thee the fire thou shalt stay with me some time and do some work to pay for it. If not, thou shalt be eaten for my supper." Then she turned to the gate and shouted: "Ho! Ye, my solid locks, crack snails upon the rocks! Halloo! Undo!” And, as a great raven dropped a snail on a stone, the locks sprang open.
“Hi! Thou, my stout gate! Rattle like a broken crate! Fold! Unfold! Open!" The gate shook and shivered and made a noise like a crateful of broken wine glasses, squeezed itself tight, expanded wide and flung itself open all by its lonesome. Baba Yaga rode in whistling. Vasalissa followed her in. Immediately the gate shut again and the locks snapped tight.
When they had entered the horridly smelling hut, new, much worse stinks assailed Vasalissa's nose, but she breathed them in bravely and continued to be polite, saying nothing about them nor the extreme dirtiness of the hut.
The selfish old witch threw herself down and spread out to occupy the whole of the warm stove bench, leaving Vasalissa in the cold middle part of the room, stretched out her bony legs and said:
"Hey! You girl! Fetch out and put on the table everything that is in the oven. At once! I am hungry."
So Vasalissa ran and lit a splinter of wood from one of the skulls on the wall, folded her own apron over her hand, scorching it slightly, since there was no clean towel nor any hotpad at all, took the food from the oven and set it before her. There was enough cooked meat for three strong men. She also brought from the cellar kvass, honeymead, and red wine, and Baba Yaga ate and drank the whole, leaving the girl only a little cabbage soup, a stale crust of bread, and a half-burnt morsel of suckling pig.
When her hunger was satisfied, the witch, growing drowsy, lay down on the stove bench and said:
"Listen to me, and do well what I bid thee. Tomorrow when I drive away, do thou clean the yard, sweep the floors and cook my supper. Then take a quarter of a measure of wheat from my store house and pick out of it all the black grains and the wild peas. Mind thou dost all that I have bade; if not, thou shalt be eaten for my supper."
Presently Baba Yaga turned toward the wall and began to snore and Vasalissa knew that she was fast asleep. Then she went into the corner, took the doll from her pocket, put before it a bit of bread dipped in pork grease and a scant spoonful of cabbage soup that she had saved. “Here, Blossom Blessing, take, eat and drink if thou will. Pray listen to my grief. Here am I locked in the house of the old witch and the gate in the wall is worked by magic. She has given me a difficult task and if I do not do all she has bidden me, she will eat me tomorrow. Tell me: What shall I do?"
Then the eyes of the little doll began to shine like two candles. It ate the grease-dipped bread and sipped the soup and said: "Be brave as thy name, Vasalissa! Say thy prayers, and go to sleep. The morning is brighter than the evening." So Vasalissa trusted the little doll and was comforted. She said her prayers, lay down on the floor and went fast asleep.
When she woke next morning, very early, it was still dark. She rose and looked out of the window, and she saw that the eyes of the skulls on the wall were growing dim. As she looked, the man dressed all in white, riding the milk-white horse, galloped swiftly around the corner of the hut, leaped the wall and disappeared, and as he went, it became quite light and the eyes of the skulls flickered and went out.
Baba Yaga was in the yard; she gave a piercing whistle, summoning the great iron mortar and pestle and the kitchen broom which all flew out of the hut ready to her hand. As she got into the mortar the man dressed all in red, mounted on the blood-red horse, galloped like the wind around the corner of the hut, leaped the wall and was gone. As the sun rose, Baba Yaga shouted:
“Ho! Ye, my solid locks, crack snails upon the rocks! Halloo! Undo! Hi! Thou, my stout gate! Rattle like a broken crate! Fold! Unfold! Open!" All happened just as before, and she rode off in the mortar, driving with the pestle and sweeping away her path behind her with the broom.
When Vasalissa found herself left alone, she cautiously sniffed the air and found it sweet. She gingerly examined the interior of the hut, wondering to find it neat and tidy and filled from crook to cranny with every kind of herb and dried flower, strings of wax beans and peppers, twisted ropes of garlic, fine hanks of flax, colored silks and lambs wool; a fletch of bacon, five smoked hams, and every other kind of good thing. Such an abundance! How did it all fit inside the tiny hut?
Then she stood still as a sparrow in the shade when the hawk's shadow goes over. She remembered all the work that she had been bidden to do and wondered what to tackle first. But as she looked she rubbed her eyes, for the yard was already neatly cleaned and the floors were nicely swept, and the little doll was sitting in the storehouse picking the last black grains and wild peas out of the quarter-measure of wheat.
Vasalissa ran and took the little doll in her arms. "My dear Blossom Blessing! Thou hast saved me from my trouble! Now I have only to cook Baba Yaga's supper, since all the rest of the tasks are done!"
"Cook it with Our Lady's aid," said the doll, "and may the cooking of it make thee healthy! Then take thy rest, Vasalissa the Brave!” Then it crept into her pocket and became again only a little wooden doll.
So Vasalissa cooked early and rested all day and was refreshed. When it grew toward evening she laid the table for the old witch's supper, and sat looking out of the window, waiting for her coming. After awhile she heard the sound of a horse's hoofs and the man in black, on the coal-black horse, galloped up to the wall gate and disappeared like a great dark shadow. Instantly, it became quite dark and the eyes of all the skulls flickered and glittered and shone.
Then all at once the trees of the forest creaked, and the earth groaned and the leaves whirled and the bushes moaned, the air sighed and Whoosh! Baba Yaga came riding out of the dark wood in the huge iron mortar, driving with the pestle and sweeping out the trail behind her with the dirty kitchen broom. Vasalissa let her in; and the witch, smelling all around her, asked:
"Well, hast thou done perfectly all the tasks I gave thee to do? For if not, I have a good notion to have a blood-and-milk cheeked maiden for my supper!"
"Be so good as to look for thyself, grandmother," answered Vasalissa the Brave politely.
Baba Yaga went all about the place, tapping with her iron pestle, and carefully examining everything. But so well had the little doll done its work that, try as hard as she might, she could not find anything to complain of. There was not a weed left in the yard, nor a speck of dust on the floors, nor a single black grain or wild pea in the wheat. The old witch was greatly angered, but was obliged to pretend to be pleased.
"Well," she said, "thou hast done all well." Then, clapping her hands, she shouted: "Ho! my faithful servants! Friends of my heart! Haste and grind my wheat!" Snap! Three pairs of hands appeared, seized the measure of wheat and carried it away.
Baba Yaga sat down to her supper, and Vasalissa put before her all the food from the oven, with kvass, honeymead, and red wine. The old witch ate it, bones and all, almost to the last morsel, enough for four strong men, and then, growing drowsy, stretched her bony legs on the stove bench and said:
"Tomorrow do as thou hast done today, and besides these tasks take from my storehouse a half-measure of poppy seeds and clean them one by one. Someone has mixed earth with them to do me a mischief, and I will have them made perfectly clean." So saying she turned to the wall and soon began to snore.
When she was fast asleep Vasalissa went into the corner, took the little doll from her pocket, set before it a crumb of soggy bacon cupped in a bract of overcooked cabbage and a dab of sour pickle juice. Once more, the doll came alive and its two eyes shone a deep, pure white moon color with a flicker of pinky red around the edges. It supped and drank this poor fare with as much hearty appetite as if it were white bread and jam. Then it laughed and said:
"Be brave as thy name Vasalissa! Do as thou didst and let all be left in my care."
So Vasalissa was brave as her name and heeded not the angry threats and whispered fears that strove to unnerve her. She said her prayers and went to sleep and did not wake till next morning when she heard the old witch in the yard whistling. She ran to the window just in time to see her take her place in the big iron mortar, and as she did so the man dressed all in red, riding on the blood red horse, leaped over the wall and was gone, just as the sun rose over the wild forest.
As it had happened on the first morning, so it happened now. When Vasalissa looked she found that the little doll had finished all the tasks except the cooking of the supper. The yard was swept and in order, the floors were as clean as new wood, even the scaly legs of the hut had been briskly brushed off, though they squawked when it happened and danced angrily in place, for they had orders to drop leg dandruff as soon as the witch hove in sight, and now they had no dander left to raise. There was not a grain of earth left in the half-measure of poppy seeds.
So Vasalissa rested and refreshed herself till the afternoon, when she cooked the supper, and when evening came she laid the table and sat down to wait for Baba Yaga to come home. But first, she checked the legs of the hut again just to make sure they were plotting no more mischief.
Soon the man in black, on the coal-black horse, galloped up to the gate, and the dark fell and the eyes of the skulls shone green and bright as day; then the ground quaked, and the trees creaked and dry leaves whirled and rustled as Whoosh! Baba Yaga came riding in her heavy iron mortar, driving with her pestle and sweeping away her trail with her broom.
When she came in she smelled around her and went all about the hut, tapping with the pestle; but pry and peer as she might, again she could see no reason to find fault and was angrier than ever. She clapped her hands and shouted:
"Ho! my trusty servants! Friends of my soul! Haste and press the oil out of my poppy seeds!" And Snap! the three pairs of hands appeared, seized the measure of poppy seeds and carried it away.
Presently the old witch sat down to supper and Vasalissa brought all she had cooked, enough for five grown men, and set it before her, and brought beer and honeymead, and then she herself stood silently waiting. The Baba Yaga ate and drank it all, every morsel, leaving not so much as a pinch of bread; then she said snappishly: "Well, why dost thou say nothing, but stand there as if thou wast dumb?"
"I spoke not," Vasalissa answered, "because it is not polite to interrupt a hungry person's dinner. But if thou hast done and wilt allow me, grandmother, I wish to ask thee some questions."
"Well," said the witch, "only remember that every question does not lead to good. If thou knowest overmuch, thou wilt grow old too soon. What wilt thou ask?"
"I would ask thee," said Vasalissa, "of the men on horse back. When I came to thy hut, a rider passed me. He was dressed all in white and he rode a milk-white horse. Who was he?"
"That was my white, bright day," answered Baba Yaga sulkily. "He is a servant of mine, but he cannot hurt thee. Ask me more."
"Afterwards," said Vasalissa, "a second rider overtook me. He was dressed in red and the horse he rode was blood-red. Who was he?"
"That was my servant, the round, red sun," answered Baba Yaga snappishly, "and he, too, cannot injure thee. Ask me more."
"A third rider," said Vasalissa, "came galloping up to the gate. He was black, his clothes were black and the horse was coal-black. Who was he?"
"That was my servant, the black, dark night," answered Baba Yaga, spitting furiously; "but he also cannot harm thee. Ask me more."
But Vasalissa, remembering what the Baba Yaga had said, that not every question led to good, shook er head 'non' and remained silent.
"Ask me more!" cried the witch. "Why dost thou not ask me more? Ask me of the three pairs of hands that serve me!"
But Vasalissa saw how she snarled at her and she demurred: "The three questions are enough for me. As thou hast said, grandmother, I would not, through knowing over much, become old too soon."
"It is well for thee," said the Baba Yaga, "that thou didst not ask of them, but only of what thou didst see outside of this hut. Hadst thou asked of them, my servants, the three pairs of hands would have seized thee also, as they did the wheat and poppy seeds, to be my food. Now I would ask a question in my turn: How is it that thou hast been able, in a little time, to do perfectly all the tasks I gave thee? Tell me!"
Vasalissa was so startled to see how the witch glared and told truth that she might demand truth that she almost told her of the doll; but she bethought herself just in time, and answered: "The blessing of my dead mother helps me."
Then Baba Yaga sprang up in a rage. "Get thee out of my house this moment!" she shrieked. "I want no one who bears a blessing to cross my threshold! Get thee gone!"
Vasalissa ran to the yard, and behind her she heard the witch shouting to the locks and the gate. The locks opened, the gate swung wide, and she ran out on to the lawn. Baba Yaga seized from the wall one of the skulls with burning eyes and flung it after her. "There," she howled, "is the fire for thy stepmother's daughters. Take it. That is what they sent thee here for, and may they have joy of it!"
Vasalissa put the skull on the end of a stick and darted away through the forest, running as fast as she could. By the skull's glowing eyes, she picked out her path. She ran and walked all through the long night by the light of the skull. Then she carried on the next day by the light of the Sun which sought anxiously for her through the shifting shadows of the falling autumn leaves. Whether she ran a long way or a short way, and whether the road was smooth or rough, this story does not say.
Towards evening of the next day, when the eyes in the skull were beginning to glimmer and gleam, she came out of the dark, wild forest to her stepmother's house.
When she came near to the gate, she thought, "Surely, by this time they will have found some fire," and threw the skull into the hedge; but it spoke to her, and said: "Do not throw me away, Vasalissa; bring me to thy stepmother." She looked at the house and saw no spark of light in any of the windows. So, she took up the skull again and carried it with her.
Now since Vasalissa had gone, the stepmother and her two daughters had had neither fire nor light in all the house. When they struck flint and steel the tinder would not catch and the fire they brought from the neighbors would go out immediately as soon as they carried it over the threshold, so that they had been unable to light or warm themselves or to cook food to eat.
Therefore now, for the first time since her father remarried, Vasalissa found herself welcomed. They opened the door to her and the merchant's wife was greatly rejoiced to find that the light in the skull did not go out as soon as it was brought in. "Maybe the witch's fire will stay," she said, and took the skull into the best room, set it on a candlestick and called her two daughters to admire it.
But the eyeholes of the skull suddenly gleamed sharp and began to glow red as oakwood coals. Wherever the three turned or ran the eyes followed them, growing larger and brighter till they flamed like two furnaces! Hotter and hotter and hotter they flared, till the merchant's wife and her two wicked daughters caught fire and were burned to ashes where they stood. They were consumed as they had consumed, leaving not so much as a scorch mark on the floorboards. But Vasalissa the Brave, who looked upon the sight with only pity in her heart, was not torched.
On a table in the middle of the room lay a cloth and a whole cooked chicken, a new loaf of yellow egg bread, nicely braided, butter, peanut butter, clotted cream, salted almonds, sugared lemon peel, a bottle of ketchup, and three kinds of drink, including a tumbler of concord grape juice, a full pot of steaming hot tea, and a mimosa, which was most unusual in Vasalissa's experience. A mimosa, if you must know, is made of orange juice, champagne and a dash of chambord shipped all the way from France. Now you know; but remember what Baba Yaga said about asking too many questions!
Vasalissa the Brave did not too much mind having gone hungry for so many days in a row, but now the sight and smell of such rich food made her ravenous. Still, she minded her manners and took only her own just portion and, doing the honors of the table to her peculiar guest, offered the rest to the red-eyed skull. Indeed, she suspected the skull had done all the cooking for this meal.
The red-eyed skull devoured all the left over food, even the bones, ketchup and peanut butter, which Vasalissa thought quite disgusting, but still she said no word of surprise or ridicule to discomfit her strange guest. She swept the crumbs off the table and into her apron pocket just in case she should need to feed the doll before long. When the cloth was clean, the skull spoke.
“Let there be cake.” And cake there was! Coconut cream cake, German chocolate cake, devil's food cake, pound cake with red raspberry sauce, carrot cake with cream cheese icing, vegan marbled fudge cake, and three or four kinds of cake that I have never heard tell of, so I can't tell you.
“Have some dessert, Vasalissa the Brave,” said the red-eyed skull with its most wicked grin.
Oh! She was tempted! But Vasalissa bethought herself of the doll in her pocket, and though her mother had told her never to let anyone see the doll, she had a strong urge to take it out and consult it. She happened to put her hand into her pocket and lo! The doll was alive, munching on almond chips, glazed bread crust and sugared lemon peel. Knowing how thirsty that would make anyone, Vasalissa took up the glass from which she had sipped her mimosa and 'accidentally' spilled a drop on the front of her apron.
“Oh, how clumsy of me!” she said, dabbing at the spot with the corner of her apron, “How untidy you must think me!”
The doll sipped mimosa through the wet cloth as a baby suckles a sugar tit, and when Vasalissa put her hand on the wet spot—(what are you laughing about? Be quiet!) she felt the doll emphatically shaking its head 'no' – so she politely declined to eat any of the super-rich and superbly fattening desserts, saying,
“No, I thank you, I have had quite enough. But you must not mind me: you are a guest here. Please eat as much dessert as you like.”
Twice more, the skull urged her to take just a little dessert. The third time, it sailed over the table and with the lower jaw nudged towards her a portion of angel cake, saying,
“Oh, I am sure you might have the least sliver of this, now—so light and fluffy and hardly any fat or sugar in it at all. Won't you try it? It was baked specially for you.”
Again Vasalissa was tempted for how could pure white angel cake be evil? Not like Devil's cake or German chocolate! But again she felt the doll stamping its tiny foot 'no!' inside her pocket. So she merely smiled and said,
“I must live up to my name, you know and bravely decline your kind offer. But really and truly, the salted almonds and sugared lemon peel were the perfect end to a delicious meal. Thank you so much for your help and your company.” Then she rose from the table to signify the meal was over.
The skull had no choice but to follow her actions; as it rose and hovered in the air, the red-eyed skull gnashed its teeth and growled like a tiger, saying,
“It is as well for you Vasalissa that you did not partake of the magical cake. For if you had, you would have been whisked back to Baba Yaga's hut, and me along with you. And I would have become her second-in-command for having fooled you at the last. Now I cannot go back, for she will scream at me and beat me into powder, so you might as well bury me in this corny hick's hideaway. What a shockingly sad fate for one so high and ambitious in evil! But I deserve it; I have failed in my mission and now have nothing left to die for!” And his red eyes winked out ever so slowly, slowly, then gone! Just as red oakwood coals do if you stay up and watch them closely and do not go to sleep.
So Vasalissa the Brave went to her sound, healthy sleep despite a rich meal and scary adventures and having three dead people's remains in the house overnight!
In the morning, she swept up the cold ashes of her one-time relations and dug a deep hole in the ground, far from the well and the garden. There she interred the skull and ashes, and planted a willow tree over the joint grave, which was more than they deserved for remembrance. Then she locked the house and set out to the village, where she went to live with an old woman who was poor and childless, but thrifty. She seemed glad for Vasalissa's cheerful company. There she remained for many days, waiting for her father's return from the far-distant Tsardom.
But, sitting idle would not do for Vasalissa the Brave! Time soon began to hang heavy on her hands. One day she said to the old woman:
"It is dull for me, grandmother, to sit hour by hour with nothing to do. My hands want work! Go, therefore, take this jeweled brooch and with it, buy us flour and pulses, lard, onions, turnips, a rasher of good bacon, half a sugar loaf, raisins, pickled okra, briny lemons, English walnuts, nineteen black peppercorns, and a flask of olive oil. With what money is left over, pray buy me some flax, the best and finest to be found anywhere. While you cook, I shall spin."
The old woman hastened and bought the plain, wholesome food as she was bidden and also brought back some flax of the best sort. Vasalissa sat down to work. So well did she spin that the thread came out as even and fine as a hair, even as fine as the spider silk that once had fascinated her as an infant. Presently there was enough reeled round to begin to weave. But so fine was the thread that no frame could be found to weave it upon, nor would any weaver undertake to make one.
Then Vasalissa went into her closet, took the little doll from her pocket, set lentil soup and a drop of old sherry before it and asked its help. As ever, the doll became alive and said: "Bring me an old frame and an old basket and some hairs from a horse's mane, and I will arrange everything for thee."
Vasalissa hastened to fetch all the doll had asked for and when evening came, said her prayers, went to sleep, and in the morning she found ready a frame, perfectly made, to weave her fine thread upon.
She wove one month, she wove two months. All winter Vasalissa sat weaving, weaving her fine thread, till the whole piece of linen was done, of a texture so fine that it could be passed, like thread, through the eye of a needle. When the spring came she bleached it, so white that no snow could be compared with it. Then she said to the old woman:
"Take thou the linen to the market, grandmothers and sell it, and the money shall suffice to pay for my food and lodging." When the old woman examined the linen, however, she said:
"Nonsense! Your jewel has bought us enough food for three months yet. Never will I sell such cloth in the market place; no one should wear it except it be the Tsar himself, and tomorrow I shall carry it to the Palace."
Next day, accordingly, the old woman went to the Tsar's splendid Palace and fell to walking up and down before the windows. The servants came to ask her her errand but she answered them nothing, and kept walking up and down. At length the Tsar opened his window, and asked: "What dost thou want, old woman, that thou walkest here?"
"O, Tsar's Majesty" the old woman answered, "I have with me a marvelous piece of linen stuff, so wondrous woven that I will show it to none but thee."
The Tsar bade them bring her before him and when he saw the linen he was struck with astonishment at its fineness and beauty. "What wilt thou take for it, old woman?" he asked.
"There is no price that can buy it, Little Father Tsar," she answered; "but I have brought it to thee as a gift." The Tsar could not thank the old woman enough. He took the linen and sent her to her house with many rich presents, including: rubber hose, two for the legs and one for the garden, three fur collars, Belgian lace, a sweet silver fruit knife, and a cunning little box from which a tiny mechanical cloisonné bird popped out and sang when the lid was opened. There was more but I do not remember the whole list of presents. I only remember the bird because I saw it once, somewhere.
Seamstresses were called to make shirts for him out of the cloth; but when it had been cut up, so fine was it that not one of them was deft and skillful enough to sew it. The best seamstresses in all the Tsardom were summoned but none dared undertake it. So the Tsar sent for the old woman and said:
"If thou didst know how to spin such thread and weave such linen, thou must also know how to sew me shirts from it."
And the old woman answered:
"O, Tsar's Majesty, it was not I who wove the linen; it is the work of my adopted daughter."
"Take it, then," the Tsar said, "and bid her do it for me."
The old woman brought the linen home and told Vasalissa the Tsar's command:
"Well, I suspected that the work would needs be done by my own hands," said Vasalissa the Mighty Needlewoman, and, locking herself in her own room, began to make the shirts. So fast and well did she work that soon a dozen were ready. If you had ever sewn just one shirt, you would think that was very brave! Then the old woman carried them to the Tsar.
Meanwhile Vasalissa washed her face, dressed her hair, put on her best gown and sat down at the window to see what would happen.
Presently a servant in the livery of the Palace came to the house and entering, said:
"The Tsar, our lord, desires himself to see the clever needlewoman who has made his shirts and to reward her with his own hands."
Vasalissa rose and went at once to the Palace. They spoke together for an hour—two hours—three hours. She told him some, but not all, of her present circumstances. She ate a little, but not greedily, drank a little but refused more. The longer they talked, the more in love with her he grew, till he loved her with all his soul. He took her by her hand and drew her to sit beside him.
"Maiden," he said, "thou art handsome, mild-spoken, good at heart, brave, discreet, clever but not boastful, patient, resourceful, oikonomical, and industrious. Thou hast parted from thy treasure at need and shared thy bounty with those less richly blessed. Though thy father be a merchant, such qualities make thee entirely fit for the rule of this realm. Nevermore will I part from thee, and thou shalt be my wife."
So the Tsar and Vasalissa the Brave were married, and her father returned from the far-distant Tsardom, with wonderful boxes of spices and rare wood. He and the old woman lived always with Vasalissa in the splendidly cool Summer Palace, in all joy and contentment. And as for the little wooden doll, she carried it about with her in her pocket all her life long.
For the Tsar had several distant cousins who were ever ready to vex her for being a mere merchant's daughter, and not of baronial stock. So the doll helped her with them. And he had a crabbed old mother who reminded her all too much of Baba Yaga, as if she just might eat people as people eat chickens.
But Vasalissa was brave in the face of these unexpected trials, which often come with marriage and were likely to last her whole life long. And the doll helped her through them all. Sometimes she wakened the doll with a drop of Assam or Oolong or Earl Grey and a digestive biscuit, not to tell it her troubles, but to share with it her joys, or to have a cozy, comfortable chat while the mechanical bird sang to entertain them both.
When the dowager Tsarina became very sick indeed, she would have no one but Vasalissa about her, which was a difficult thing, for the Tsarina was convinced she had been poisoned. Actually, she had not, but she was inclined to eat lobster and crab in months that have no R in them, and also was exceedingly fond of French wine, German chocolate cake and Malaysian ketchup. Together! No wonder she was gouty.
So Vasalissa gave her tart cherry juice mixed with sparkling mineral water and thus helped her through repeated bouts of illness. And the doll helped Vasalissa, and we all managed to muddle through somehow, even if we do not have a magic doll or live in a fine palace with snooty cousins-in-law.
Fortunately, when the Dowager Tsarina did get sick and die, Vasalissa the Brave was not on hand, but was being very brave indeed, shouting ex-cessively loud—almost as loud as Baba Yaga herself!— while giving birth to her own child. But that is another story; and remember what Baba Yaga said about asking too many questions! You are likely to grow old before your time!
Anyhow, in the end, the wicked cousins could not accuse her of poisoning the Tsar's mother but instead had to bow and scrape and humble themselves before the Infant Heir to the Throne held in Vasalissa the Brave's arms. And if there is anything braver than being a new mother, sink me, for, I know not what it might be.
I wonder whatever happened to that little wooden doll? I wish I had one like it!